"MY FATHER seemed to me infallible, invincible, immortal."
So says Blake (Colin Firth), the narrator of And When Did You Last See Your Father?, as he sifts through fractured memories of his terminally ill old man, searching for a way to reconcile with the fragile patriarch whose tough love scarred him in his formative years
Up and coming Sheffield actor Matthew Beard is sensational as the socially awkward teenage Blake, who at one point looks up from his copy of The Brothers Karamazov to quip, “I’m reading... about someone who murders his father.”
That brutal tug of war, between meeting parents’ lofty expectations and carving out your own niche in the world, underpins Anand Tucker’s sentimental portrait of a dysfunctional father-son relationship.
Adapted by David Nicholls from Blake Morrison’s unflinching novel of the same name, the film cuts back and forth between the present day and flashbacks which shaped Blake’s attitude to his bumbling pater.
Tender scenes of intimacy between father and boy, such as a driving lesson on a deserted beach (“At least here there’s no one for you to smash into,” grins the old man), contrast with embarrassing vignettes, which ignite the son’s simmering resentment.
These recollections are interspersed with upsetting scenes of the father’s physical decline in the present, compelling a tearful Blake to whisper, “Please Dad, just stop breathing if you can’t come back as you were. Just go.”
Estranged from his domineering father Arthur (Jim Broadbent) and happily married to Kathy (Gina McKee) with two children, Blake, now 40, continues to avoid healing the wounds .
When Arthur is diagnosed with terminal cancer, Blake is compelled to return to the Yorkshire Dales of his youth to reconnect with his father, mother Kim (Juliet Stevenson) and sister Gillian.
So Blake opens himself to recollections, to the 1950s summer when he discovered Arthur fumbling in the back of the family car with Beaty (Lancashire), and a holiday when the teenage Blake (Matthew Beard, who just left King Ecgbert’s school with three As at A level) ) and his old man embarked on a rain-sodden camping trip.
A romantic dalliance between adolescent Blake and the au pair, Sandra (Elaine Cassidy), drags the boy’s feelings of inadequacy and loathing into the open.
“You should never ever wish anyone dead,” scolds Sandra. “What if it came true?”
And When Did You Last See Your Father? is a bittersweet and moving account of strained family ties which define every one of us.
The chemistry with Broadbent’s domineering father is electric, extinguished in present day scenes with Firth who seems incapable of tapping into his character’s maelstrom of emotions, or wringing out a single tear.
Female characters remain in the background, including Stevenson’s affection-starved wife.
“Two words, that’s all I want: Well. Done,” says Blake. Tucker’s film earns them.