When Did You Last See Your Father?
by Elaine Hegwood Bowen
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When Did You Last See Your Father? is a screenplay, based on a book of the same name, by British writer Blake Morrison. It portrays his life, beginning with early childhood, adolescence—with all its rites of passage—and the ultimate death of his physician father, Art (Jim Broadbent).
Morrison (Colin Firth) grew up with a timid, accommodating mother named Kim (Juliet Stevenson), also a physician, and an overbearing, flirtatious, conniving father who really provided for his family as any good father should, but who left a lot to be desired in the warmth department.
It’s so hard to deal with a parent’s death, and Blake’s story reveals that it’s even harder when that parent-child relationship had been strained. Finally, what’s left is a grown-up child who more or less faces the inevitable with repressed feelings, while caring for a parent who is consumed with dying with dignity, as opposed to grappling with past ill will.
Blake’s father is diagnosed with cancer, and then about three weeks later, Blake returns home to share hospice duties with his mom and sister, Gillian (Claire Skinner). When Did You Last See Your Father? is such a tearjerker, especially for this writer, who lost a father under similar circumstances more than 20 years ago.
The title hints not necessarily at the last physical time a person sees his father, but the last time the father was cognizant, vibrant and active, enjoying conversation and life as a whole. Not when you see someone as they are succumbing to imminent death.
The director uses flashbacks to intertwine present day with Blake’s conflicted, bittersweet memories. As much as his father tried to be loving, many occasions were soured, because he had such a callous disposition. Few times in the movie was there any joy exhibited between the two of them; they seemed to always be at odds, with Art constantly humiliating Blake with his tasteless jokes, as well as his calling him “fathead,” when all Blake really craved was just two words: “well” and “done.” Blake didn’t make it much easier, when he went away to college to become a writer, as opposed to studying medicine or some other noble subject.
I suppose the dynamic in many a father-son relationship is one of competition; father trying to show the son the right way, while the son tries to exert his independence. On a camping trip, Blake and Art wing it, even though Art had concocted homemade, waterproof tents. All doesn’t go well, and Blake awakens to the two of them nearly floating in the river.
The film does, however, deliver a few happy times, one being an outing when Art first taught Blake how to drive during a trip to the beach. The London Metropolitan Opera provides much of the music for the score, and one sweeping selection played during this scene lent so much to its portrayal of a father and son much in tune with one another, as Art instructs Blake to go faster and faster.
Even Art’s relationship with Kim is splintered, as a female family friend named Aunt Beaty (Sarah Lancashire) and her young daughter fill in on more than one occasion on family outings, in which Kim is unable to attend. Years later, Blake confronts Aunt Beaty about his feelings regarding Art’s infidelity and whether Aunt Beaty’s daughter is really Art’s child.
Blake referred to the time when he was caring for his dying father as a “time to put things in order.” That seemed like such a difficult assignment, when there was so much that had gone unspoken between the two while his father was healthy. “You spend your lifetime trying to avoid talking to someone, and all of a sudden, it’s too late,” Blake tells his wife, as his feelings further haunt him.
Near the end of When Did You Last See Your Father?, through sweeping cinematography, after his father’s transition, Blake seems to not have lost his father, but to have finally found him.
This was such a captivating movie. I loved the great English landscape, the beautiful soundtrack, the opportunity to relive my childhood (albeit vastly different) vicariously through Blake’s. But most importantly, the movie’s release in Chicago on Father’s Day weekend, while maybe not intentional, was a good idea. It makes for a good “father-son” outing.
Elaine Hegwood Bowen is a freelance writer and film critic living in Chicago.
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