Judge Ben Saylor wants to know when you last saw his copy of When Did You Last See Your Father?.
The life of a Father seen through the journey of his son.
Acclaimed director Anand Tucker (Hilary and Jackie) follows up his 2005 film Shopgirl with When Did You Last See Your Father?, an adaptation of the memoir by British poet Blake Morrison. With Father?, the director shows the same expert handling of both actors and the camera (at least most of the time on the latter) that made Hilary and Jackie and Shopgirl such accomplished films; however, with Father?, a problematic script and some unfortunate directorial decisions adversely affect the film's impact.
Facts of the Case
Successful poet Blake Morrison (Colin Firth, Bridget Jones: The Edge of Reason) is summoned home when his father, Arthur (Jim Broadbent, Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull), is diagnosed with terminal cancer. During this extended stay at his boyhood home, Blake struggles to come to terms with his feelings for his father, who was unfaithful to Blake's mother and had a habit of humiliating and one-upping his son.
When Did You Last See Your Father? is, at the very least, a showcase for fine acting and mostly strong camerawork. Director Anand Tucker, who coaxed Academy Award-nominated performances out of Rachel Griffiths and Emily Watson in the 1998 Hilary and Jackie, works similar wonders with his cast in Father?. Leading the charge is Jim Broadbent, who makes Arthur into exactly the kind of complicated character this story requires. If he had been portrayed as an undeniably bad man, the audience would, of course, be turned against Arthur straightaway. But while Arthur is certainly not without his faults, one doesn't get the impression that he's a total heel either. This makes us question Blake's attitude toward his father. (Blake, as we will learn over the course of the narrative, is no saint himself.)
These complicated characterizations are both a strength and weakness of the film, because while playing with gray areas certainly makes for a believable story, it also makes it hard to get behind the characters, particularly Blake. Of course, we're not meant to completely sympathize with Blake; at one point in the film, his wife Kathy (an excellent Gina McKee) rightly tells off her husband for treating her coldly. Over certain stretches of the film, Blake comes off as whiny and unnecessarily indignant over past petty grievances, most of which, such as Arthur stealing attention away from a pretty girl during a family holiday, are pretty innocuous for the most part. In the end (as Tucker himself says on the commentary), the problem isn't so much that Arthur is a bad father but that he and his son have completely different personalities, something I would say isn't that uncommon among fathers and sons.
When Did You Last See Your Father?'s episodic plot is told in disjointed flashbacks, which allows Tucker the opportunity to employ the same elegant transitions between scenes of different time periods that he used in Hilary and Jackie. Unfortunately, while the nonlinear structure of the film isn't all that detrimental to the success of the project as a whole, the moments chosen by screenwriter David Nicholls to focus on don't seem right. As Randy Ma discussed in his Cinema Verdict review of this film, the script fails to sufficiently address what is clearly Arthur's most glaring character flaw-his blatant, unapologetic infidelity. Beyond a few references to it, one argument between Arthur and his wife (played by the great Juliet Stevenson) and a showdown between Arthur and a teenaged Blake, the film largely glosses over this, which was a major miscalculation on the filmmakers' part.
Even with mistakes with the script and characterization, When Did You Last See Your Father? still manages to be powerful at times. Unfortunately, Tucker is not content to let the material to stand on its own, because he frequently throws in a flamboyant camera trick (particularly the never-ending circling of Arthur and Blake at the end that pretty much ruins the film's climax) that calls too much attention to itself and robs the moment of whatever impact it may have had. He also excessively shows Blake reflected on mirrors and other surfaces, in order to remind the audience that the film is about Blake examining his memories. A better way of conveying this idea comes in a terrifically edited sequence (the film's editor was Trevor Waite) where the adult Blake goes into the garage to take Arthur's car for a drive. His examination of the garage and car is interspersed with bits of the teenaged Blake talking with Arthur in the same spot. This kind of intercutting really sells the internal journey of Blake much more effectively than any of the film's umpteen reflection shots.
The film's music serves as an accomplice in hitting the audience over the head with how they're supposed to feel; Barrington Pheloung's score is almost never subtle and generally proves to be more than what is needed for a given scene. On the commentary track, Tucker confesses to a love of sweeping musical scores and discusses nostalgia for Douglas Sirk melodramas. Unfortunately, using music similar in tone to that of that bygone era (as was done in Far From Heaven) just adds to the overwrought nature of this film.
Sony's DVD of When Did You Last See Your Father? is very satisfactory in the audio and video departments; the colors really pop off the screen, especially during outdoor flashback sequences. That over-the-top score blends nicely with the dialogue as well. Foremost among the special features is a feature commentary with Tucker. While I certainly don't agree with everything the director says in relation to his film (his explanation for the necessity of all the mirror shots, his afore-mentioned defense of the music), I can't deny that he presents his case with genuine passion and enthusiasm. He talks nonstop through the movie and touches on many different aspects of the production, making for a well-rounded and enjoyable commentary. There are also seven deleted scenes that run about eight minutes altogether; commentary is provided by Tucker and producer Elizabeth Karlsen for five of them. I have to say, even though I think the movie needed more meat on its bones (it clocks in at 86 minutes without credits), these brief scenes were definitely better left on the cutting room floor. The movie's trailer and a collection of previews for other titles rounds out the disc.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
Despite the film's flaws, it's worth mentioning again that the acting is first-rate all-around. Besides Broadbent's excellent work, we have Firth, who certainly does his best with a hard role. The women of the film; namely, Stevenson and McKee, aren't given enough to do, but when they're onscreen, they shine. Newcomer Matthew Beard also does strong work as teenaged Blake, which is no small feat, as his character is even whinier and more petulant than his fully-grown incarnation.
In addition, even with Tucker's camera excesses, there's no denying that Father is, in an overall sense, a well-shot film. Howard Atherton's cinematography employs a bright and vivid color palette for the film's flashbacks and appropriately subdued hues for the scenes at the Morrison home following Arthur's diagnosis. Throughout the film, Tucker maintains the same polished, meticulous style of filmmaking he used so well in Hilary and Jackie and Shopgirl (both of which benefited from stronger scripts and a better match between Tucker's style and the material). And while his love for mirror shots grows tiresome, I do admire his tendency to shoot characters (Blake especially) through glass or water, and framing his actors between objects or elements of the set or location.
Whether or not you like When Did You Last See Your Father? depends largely on your tolerance level for male weepies dealing with father-son issues. And while Tucker gets some of it right, his tendency to go overboard at times to drive the film's point home, coupled with a flawed screenplay, renders Father? inferior to other works by the director.
Guilty of managing to be too much and not enough at the same time.
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• Feature commentary with director Anand Tucker
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