LITTLE ROCK Unfailingly intelligent and admirably unsentimental, When Did You Last See Your Father? is a movie for people who take pleasure in the textures and sidelong insights of literary memoir, an introspective art practiced by the sort of people who generally fail to register on screen.
It's aimed at those who like stories told in ways that don't naturally translate to film, for whom the scuff and nape of language might not only be sufficient but the entire point. It is not entirely successful, for it is slow and at times indirect to the point of being obtuse, but it will remind you of the way things are remembered. It feels like a memory of a dream, a little unreliable and out of focus, underpinned by uneasy, vague feelings of guilt and shame.
One is tempted to go on because When Did You Last See Your Father? does not lend itself to conventional encapsulation. To say it is about dying old reprobate Arthur (remarkably played by Jim Broadbent) and his relationship with his bookish and preening writer son Blake (Colin Firth as an adult in 1989 and the sensational Matthew Beard as an adolescent in flashback) is to miss the point.
When Did You Last See Your Father? is at least as much about how and why we choose to remember what we remember and what we would like to forge as it is a story of a man coming to grips with the simple flawed humanity of his blowhard physicianfather, a graceless philanderer and opportunist who was forever embarrassing his sensitive son. It is a movie that would probably be better off as a poem.
That makes a certain sense if you see the film, which this review is not meant to encourage you to do - unless after whacking through all that has come before, you feel you simply have to. You might be better off going to the source material,which is the book of the same title written by English poet Blake Morrison.
Among the movie's virtues are its sterling British cast - including Juliet Stevenson as Arthur's long-suffering wife and Blake's supportive mother - and director Anand Tucker's (Hillary and Jackie, Shopgirl) active yet patient camerawork and insistence on keeping everything, even Blake's tilting with the windmills of mortality, on a recognizably human scale.
It all boils down to a quiet, earnest movie that doesn't pretend to explain what it cannot, which has the curious effect of providing comfort. Maybe we all secretly believe in our immortality, up until and maybe even past the moment we expire. It's possible the titular question cannot be answered - most of us see our fathers all the time, in mirrors and in dreams.
When Did You Last See Your Father?
83Cast: Colin Firth, Jim Broadbent, JulietStevenson, Sarah Lancashire, Matthew Beard Director: Anand Tucker Rating: PG-13 for sexual content, language Running time: 92 minutes
MovieStyle, Pages 40 on 09/05/2008