Running Time: 89 mins
Rated: Rated M (mature themes, infrequent coarse language).
Book-loving readers of The Universe may remember this memoir of poet, novelist, literary editor, Blake Morrison when it was first published in 1993. It has taken a long time to reach the screen, not an easy task to adapt a family memoir, but it has been worth the wait.
If audience experience is anything like this reviewer's, then they will be identifying with characters very strongly, identifying with the situations and making comparisons if they have been through similar experiences, especially of terminal illness and death.
The quotation of the title comes late in the film. It is a reference to Blake Morrison's grandfather who was asked at the time of his father's death, 'And when did you last see your father?'. The question has many meanings, not just seeing one's father at the time of death or in final illness. Rather, it asks the question, when did you last see your father as he really was, fully alive as himself.
Morrison asks the question because he had many difficulties with his father. Arthur Morrison was an extroverted, jocose, even rambunctious man, a doctor, married to a doctor, who hoped that his son would follow in his footsteps. In many ways, his son was a disappointment, a quiet and introverted boy who grew up to be a writer, even a prizewinning writer who was never praised verbally by his father.
Not that Arthur Morrison was not proud of his son and loved him. He didn't say it and Blake needed the words. As he recollects his father in this memoir, he begins to realise all that his father did for him and to let go of the anger, even fury, that he felt for his father.
The film is a memoir composed of jigsaw pieces of life. As they intersect on screen, we see the little boy realising his father's infidelity. We see the quiet teenager who becomes the butt of his father's stories and jokes. We see the adult Blake who has come to be with his father and mother in his father's final illness, hoping for some talk, some reconciliation, a man who needs to put the pieces together and appreciate his father, faults and failings as well as generosity and love.
The film is beautifully presented, home and travels in traditional English countryside and a musical score that starts light but becomes more sombre as the narrative progresses. Many audiences will feel at home in the film.
But, it is the acting which is the film's great achievement in communicating the characters, the story, the crises and the emotion.
Jim Broadbent is one of Britain's great character actors. He won an Oscar for caring for his wife in Iris. Here, he is the dying father - most convincing and moving in this part of the film. But, in the flashbacks, he comes fully alive and creates a vivid Arthur Morrison.
Colin Firth can often be silent and withdrawn in his films. This suits perfectly as the adult Blake, remembering, tending his father, supporting his mother and trying to deal with his emotional needs and his relationship with his father. Matthew Beard is also strong as the adolescent Blake. Juliet Stevenson is unobtrusively moving as the long suffering but devoted wife and mother.
This is life, acknowledging the hurts and the sins, but seeing the hope in a redemptive love.
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Fr Peter Malone MSC directs the film desk of SIGNIS: the World Association of Catholic Communicators, and is an associate of the Australian Catholic Office for Film & Broadcasting.