Nothing snaps a child's head around quite like a dying parent, especially when the parent is a cantankerous old sod like Arthur Morrison (Jim Broadbent), whose nominally adult son Blake (Colin Firth) still clings to childhood grievances. Directed by Anand Tucker with the same quiet tact he brought to Hilary and Jackie, and cleanly adapted by David Nicholls from a brutally frank memoir by British writer Blake Morrison, When Did You Last See Your Father? is the kind of superior middlebrow filmmaking at which the Brits excel, minus the daft Hollywood casting and pert glibness of so many domestic dramas currently cranked out for the export market.
The movie is a minor pleasure — if that's the term for a story about a family gathering around a patriarch in the final stages of bowel cancer — but a genuine one whose implicit concerns go deeper than the familiar tale of one man's struggle to appreciate a father who seemed incapable of appreciating him. Morrison Junior isn't just any peevish overgrown baby with unfinished Oedipal business. He's an early boomer who grew up in the shadow of World War II, the first generation to fault its elders not just for political insufficiency, but for emotional neglect. That our parents were neither trained for the task of nurturing nor expected to carry it out — which of them knew or cared about self-esteem, when the brief was to feed, dress and propel children into a better future than their own? — was immaterial to us, with our swollen expectations of love swallowed whole from intro to college psych. If fingering the Aged Ps as the enemy gave us a revolution, it also turned us into a generation of entitled whiners.
As sins of the fathers go, Arthur's are neither trivial nor traumatizing. The Yorkshire physician never beats his wife or his kids — indeed the movie turns on Blake's growing recognition that in his blundering way, Arthur loves his family to pieces. A domineering, irritable, embarrassing, know-it-all put-down artist given to addressing his son as "fathead" or, on a good day, "clever-clogs," he's always on the lookout for cheap deals and "little fiddles." He cheats on his patient wife (Juliet Stevenson, in long face and sensible shoes) with a close family friend in full view, while breathing heavily on pretty young women in front of his agonizingly horny son. Broadbent plays Arthur with an elasticity that movingly evokes a man more heedless and socially inept than cruel, and Firth is very good at playing nervously attenuated types like Blake, who finds no consolation in his adult achievements because Dad doesn't approve, and comes uncomfortably to realize he's more like the old man than he cares to admit.
Like most British realist dramas, When Did You Last See Your Father? is stuffed with team-player acting. Stevenson is terrific as the porous but sad wife whose last resorts are migraines and flashes of impotent anger; Sarah Lancashire is reflexively carnal as the other woman; and Elaine Cassidy gives no quarter as the obligatory agent of Blake's release from tumescence. If there's a star in this scrupulously collective endeavor, it's gangly young actor Matthew Beard, who gives a wonderfully precise reading of teenaged Blake, trapped in a morass of self-righteous arrogance and pained confusion, sharply observant as most kids are of their parents' elisions and delusions, but woefully lacking the experience to fill in the bigger human picture. Just as Hilary and Jackie drew us to the dilemmas of Jacqueline du Pré's less gifted sister, When Did You Last See Your Father? listens sympathetically, though without indulgence, to a child forced to the sidelines by a grandstanding powerhouse.
Tucker is a capable miniaturist well suited to domestic nuance. Years after a father-son camping trip whose minor irritations segue into shocking revelation, Blake remembers the episode with a mix of emotions he was incapable of at the time. Like most men unburdened by self-awareness, Arthur doesn't improve with age, and it gives nothing away to say that the mission of Morrison's memoir and the movie is to help his son toward a more discriminating view of his father's warts, and the love of family that lay beneath Arthur's honking bombast.
For Blake as for most of us, it takes decades beyond adolescence to learn that it's the acceptance of human limitation, not the discovery of truth, that allows us to redraw the maps of our family history and get on with our own. Arthur Morrison's death is as graphically physical, as comically banal and, finally for Blake, as profound as life itself. The scattering of the ashes allows Arthur's family to celebrate the dead by remembering what a cheap bastard dad was, and allows Blake to move on from his Big Sulk.