Based on British writer Blake Morrison‘s 1993 memoir, “When Did You Last See Your Father?“, directed by Anand Tucker (“Hilary and Jackie,” “Shopgirl“), is a slightly awkward revisiting of the classic melodramatic story wherein a son or daughter must deal with the death of an adversarial parent. At once over-reliant on the visual cliches of its genre (oversaturated light for outdoor scenes, metaphor-reflecting mirrors for indoor ones, slow-motion everywhere) and thoroughly unabashed in juxtaposing the gravity of mortality with the uncouth avenues of expression people take to get through it, the film oscillates wildly between middlebrow preciousness and a genuinely messy understanding of what could very well have been in other hands by-the-numbers Oedipal angst.
“When Did You Last See Your Father?” is the rare kind of film that can sandwich its inevitable death scene between a depiction of our protagonist’s interrupted bathtub masturbation and a lascivious reunion with a former lover, but also the typical film that unimaginatively merges a past and present father-son embrace in a circling 360-degree shot accompanied by flute and string tremolos.
For “When Did You Last See Your Father?”, Morrison recalls painful memories as his father succumbs to terminal cancer. Blake (Colin Firth) is a successful writer, married and award-winning to boot, but still longing for encouragement and support from his father, Arthur (Jim Broadbent), who always wanted his son to follow in his footsteps by becoming a doctor. That banal dynamic is supplemented by the parent and progeny’s much richer emotional and psychosexual struggle. Blake has never come to terms with his father’s conduct — while childishly jocular and almost ceaselessly spirited, the older Morrison is also boorish, insensitive, duplicitous, and selfish, the kind of man who takes his young son (eight-year-old Bradley Johnson) on a picnic with his mistress — here “Aunt” Beaty, played by Sarah Lancashire — and skillfully shoos away the child so as to have time alone with her in a parked car.
As we see via interwoven flashbacks, Arthur’s obnoxious philistinism and open philandering — the latter a humiliating bane to long-suffering but also unillusioned and loving wife Kim (Juliet Stevenson) — form teenage Blake (Matthew Beard) into an introverted bookworm who at one moment takes unconcealed pleasure in pointing out the patricidal theme of “The Brothers Karamazov.” But instead of turning anger toward his father into destruction (a path also avoided by Kennedy during the ongoing historical backdrop, the Cuban Missile Crisis), morbid Blake fumblingly matures. What he matures into is an interesting mix: an emasculated lecher whose dad becomes both romantic rival and curiosity-arousing lothario (a possible love child raised by Beaty obsesses Blake) as well as a snobbish bore who harbors a reactionary dislike of his father’s earthy pursuit of pleasure.
It’s not clear whether Firth’s grumpy, overserious interpretation of the grown-up Blake, such a contrast to Broadbent’s irresistibly vivacious lover of life, is meant to purposely block audience empathy, but his performance somehow fits screenwriter David Nicholls‘s emphasis on the character’s stunted development; he’s still fixated on dad’s embarrassing behavior (the rest of the family seems to have adjusted to it) and reliving a defining sexual conquest/moment of Oedipal overthrow with jerk-off sessions and an unannounced pop-in on the virginity-busting former au pair (Elaine Cassidy) for whom he still has feelings. In a refreshing twist, father and son both in their respective ways dance around reconciliation while the former still hangs onto life.
There’s a surprisingly irreverent and unfashionably earnest gem somewhere within “When Did You Last See Your Father?”, but Tucker never quite finds the correct balance of sentiment and psychology to fully bring it out. The film’s bookends perfectly reveal just how uncomfortable it is in its own skin. A starry night sky opens the picture while the voices of Arthur and a young Blake can be heard on the soundtrack. They wonder to each other what happens after death, but afraid of going overboard with deep thoughts material, Arthur is made to intone: “The universe sort of scares the shit out of you.”
At the end, Blake reconciles himself to his father’s imperfections and remembers their last truly nice moment together hanging a chandelier in Blake’s new house. They flip a switch for the “moment of truth” of whether it will work — the “let there be light” commandment and the thematic rhyming with the first shot are again too gushingly symbolic, and Arthur once more is called upon to save the day with a frivolous parting remark. Such self-deprecating relief may be true to the characters of “When Did You Last See Your Father?” but not to the demands of a sincere drama trying to discover unflattering ideas and emotions in a too commonly saccharine story.