'And When Did You Last See Your Father?' is a viscerally affecting portrait of the relationship between the author and poet Blake Morrison and his father, Arthur.
Based on Morrison's memoir of the same name, it consists of a 'modern day' narrative of the events leading up to the death of his father and a series of flashbacks to the author's childhood and teenage years. It is during these childhood and teenage years that the seeds of a resentment he still feels during adulthood, a resentment he desperately wants to communicate to his father before he dies, are planted.
The film also examines the slow and accumulative loss to old age and death that characterises the end of Arthur's life; among the many finely wrought phrases that find their way from the book to the voiceover narration, the author speaks of the "series of depletions" to his father's being.
Even more impressive is how this "series of depletions" is acted out by Jim Broadbent in an unflinching portrayal of Arthur Morrison's final days. Broadbent also does a fine job of embodying the charming, witty and charismatic Arthur of Blake's teenage years - a man "lost unless he couldn't cheat in the small things" - while at the same time convincingly revealing the darker aspects of Arthur's character, which mainly take the form of petty slights and humiliations he inflicts on his son. The result is a layered and believably complex creation that, despite his failings, is a character the audience, like Blake himself, can have sympathy and understanding for.
The 'modern day' Blake Morrison, portrayed with honesty and commitment by Colin Firth, is unavoidably less sympathetic. As the author's own character he is stripped bare by the script, although Firth's performance, much like Broadbent's, is nuanced enough to allow us to have empathy with the character. That said, it is arguably the third Morrison, the teenage and young adult Blake, played with remarkable skill and subtlety by Matthew Beard, which steals the show.
Aside from these central performances, and despite the fact that this is a film about men and male issues, the women, including Elaine Cassidy as Sandra the Morrison housekeeper, are similarly textured. Director Anand Tucker is to be applauded for extracting such uniform excellence, and the evident huge effort to create a unique connection between the audience and the subject matter pays off handsomely; unusually in cinema, the emotion is portrayed creatively and without resorting to cliché.
That said, there are some problems. Because the primary purpose of the events in the film is to build a picture of a relationship, rather than simply to create a satisfying filmic narrative, the story drags in parts, while there are one or two scenes in which directorial cleverness and trickery overshadow the actual happenings on screen. But there is an authenticity that, along with a sprinkling of humour, helps keep what could have been over heavy sentiment from wallowing or sinking to the level of audience manipulation. Ultimately, although it is at times difficult to watch, this is a film that, due to careful direction and powerful individual performances, will resonate with the viewer long after the closing credits roll.