If you’ve had enough of CGI mummies, nihilistic superheroes, shrill musical pastiches and recycled man-boy antics for one summer, and would like to tackle something with a little more substance, venture forth to the Fine Arts Theatre for When Did You Last See Your Father?. Judging by the size of the audience for the 9:30 show on Friday night, you won’t have to fight for a seat to see this exquisite film. Yes, I said “exquisite”—a word I don’t use lightly or often. I can think of no better one.
This is one of those out-of-left-field movies. It’s had no real advertising push. Even the releasing company, Sony Classics, hasn’t bothered to promote it with critics. As a result, I went to the film pretty much cold, expecting not much of anything. And in all honesty, during the first part of the film, I wasn’t sure I was getting much of anything other than a solidly crafted British drama about the difficult relationship between writer/poet Blake Morrison (Colin Firth) and his outspoken, rascally, over-the-top father, Arthur (Jim Broadbent).
Then there was this remarkable sequence—somewhat incongruously set to an aria from Bellini’s Norma—where Arthur teaches teenage Blake (newcomer Matthew Beard) to drive in an Alvis touring car on a beach. In itself, there’s nothing all that new and different about such a scene, but here the film seemed to break free of its mere competency and come to life. The previously overbearing Arthur appears differently—coming across less like a tiny tyrant and more like a man who doesn’t know how to express his feelings, and hides them behind a bluff of self-assurance. More, it affords a glimpse into the fact that Blake’s relationship with his father wasn’t as joyless as the film had been painting it. (Consequently, I now suspect that the first parts of the film would look different to me on a second viewing.)
Overall, the movie is Blake’s examination of his difficult relationship with his father, a reflective journey undertaken while Arthur lies dying from cancer. This may not sound like terribly original material, but it plays with far greater complexity than that sounds—not in the least because it’s not just about Blake’s “daddy issues.” It’s a much broader examination of our collective inability to ever completely know or understand another person—or possibly even ourselves. The film puts forth the idea that the best we ever get are reflections and fragmented images, as if we see things entirely through prisms or distorting glass.
Director Anand Tucker brilliantly conveys this idea—starting with what turns out to be a key scene involving hanging a chandelier—by shooting the characters in mirrors and through glass that often affords a double image. There are often multiple mirrors in scenes, showing two or more views of the characters at once. The question naturally arises as to which view is the “real” one. Similarly, the present and the past are sometimes combined in the same shot by way of reflection—as when the adult Blake first thinks back on his teenage self and can be seen in adult form in the mirror in his old bedroom. I honestly do not know of a film that has used such imagery as consistently or as remarkably as this one.
Yet, the film never feels forced. Its imagery seems natural, and it never overpowers the human drama, which is splendidly conveyed by an intelligent script and the nearly flawless performances of Broadbent and Firth—not to mention Beard and Juliet Stevenson as the long-suffering (or maybe not so much) mother. Broadbent seems to have the edge, because his is the flashier role, but it would be a mistake to overlook Firth, whose coldness and reserve are a self-protective reaction to his father’s slightly embarrassing flamboyance. His Blake isn’t likable, but he’s finally understandable in the film’s last few scenes.
It’s not a big movie. Nothing explodes. Nothing earthshaking happens. Instead, something wonderfully human happens. If you can watch this film and not wonder about the last time you really saw anyone you’ll never see again—as you remember them, as what you think of as indisputably them—then you’re made of sterner stuff than I am. But find out for yourself and be quick about it. Judging by the sparse attendance, this film isn’t going to stick around for long. Rated PG-13 for sexual content, thematic material and brief strong language.