Blake (Colin Firth) is a poet, which means he’s sensitive, brooding, and mostly egocentric. He’s also judgmental and sometimes surly, effects of his perpetual disappointment in his boisterous father, Arthur (Jim Broadbent). At the start of When Did You Last See Your Father?, Blake is recalling a family outing, a trip to the racetrack, the car stuck in traffic, the race about to begin. Determined to break through, Arthur, a physician in Yorkshire, loops his stethoscope over the rearview mirror and insists he’s rushing to service a patient. The policemen make way, and soon enough, the Morrisons make their way inside. “This is the way it was with my father,” Blake’s mournful voiceover intones, “Minor duplicities, little fibbles. He was lost if he couldn’t cheat in a small way.”
In fact, Arthur cheats all the time, in major and minor ways, a function of his outsized appetites and essential insensitivity. Blake, in turn, is both desperately sensitive and miserably self-involved, struggling with his roiling resentments and dashed expectations. As Anand Tucker’s film goes on to cut among three general time periods — Blake’s childhood (when he’s played by Bradley Johnson), his adolescence (Matthew Beard), and his adulthood — the reproduction of the father in the son becomes increasingly clear, though Blake cannot bear to see it. His memories gain momentum when, in 1989, he learns his father has bowel cancer, news that initiates a long, painful journey for the family, whose members including Blake’s longsuffering mother Kim (Juliet Stevenson) and mostly sidelined sister Gillian (Claire Skinner), as well as Blake’s own wife Kathy (Gina McKee, terrific in a sadly small part). As Arthur is increasingly confined, in wasting body and waning spirit, Blake has to figure out how to forgive his father in order to live with himself.
If the dynamic, drawn from the real-life Blake Morrison’s memoir, is not precisely original, it is compelling in the details provided by Broadbent and Firth. Repeatedly, Blake voices the chasm between his need to believe in Arthur and his father’s recurring betrayals. “My father seemed infallible,” he says while the movie shows the young Blake gazing up at dad, “Invincible.” His boyish adoration is met with all manner of wee abuses, from Arthur’s predilection for calling him “fathead” to his discovery, early on, that dad is sleeping with a vivacious neighbor, Beaty (Sarah Lancashire). This moment of devastating revelation is replayed again and again in the film, the camera swooping on the child Blake as he runs toward his father’s car, glinting in the sun, hoping to be comforted for his own scraped and bloody arm, only to discover the terrible secret within (the seeming primal scene is actually, even shockingly, chaste, but the eight-year-old’s traumatized face, viewed from several angles, is exquisitely revealing).
As an adult and teenager, Blake suffers repeated injuries, all stemming from this moment. Remembering Arthur’s declaration that “Being a writer and in particular a poet is all well and good, but it’s no way to make a living,” Blake smiles, wanly. Kathy huffs compassionately, offended that Arthur hasn’t even read Blake’s work (for which he receives public acclaim and awards), but she can’t get inside the mutually wounding father-son relationship, and so she’s left apart: when Blake heads to his parents’ home to watch over Arthur’s final days, she stays home with the children, Blake’s phone calls to her gradually more distant and distressed.
Blake’s mother is similarly marginalized, though he imagines his primary objection to Arthur has to do with her welfare. Kim’s excruciating patience with her husband’s philandering enrages Blake, even as he also fumes for her. The melodrama is premised on the women serving as occasions for masculine emoting, whether this concerns 14-year-old Blake’s instant crush on the family housekeeper Sandra (Elaine Cassidy) or his desire for a pretty girl they meet on vacation, Rachel (Carey Mulligan). He imagines his father has seduced both young beauties, exacerbating his sense of competition and grievance, and effectively ruining his capacity to see the girls as individuals, with their own desires, interests, and lives. (Likewise, the film never grants Kathy much existence beyond her incessantly warm support for Blake, though she does have one chance to call out his selfishness, over the phone.)
The movie’s focus on the men’s mutual, even obsessive, interest in one another is complicated by the suggestion that at least some of it is Blake’s projection (Arthur looking clumsy and obtuse during Blake’s childhood, and fading into illness in the present-day scenes). The visual versions of this emotional and moralized dynamic are soon monotonous: the camera circles Blake repeatedly, and also frames him in mirrored images, multiplying his ostensible complexities. Such poetic illustration is striking the first time, but tiresome by the fifth and sixth times. As Blake wonders to himself about actually seeing his father (and yes, he invites you to contemplate the film’s titular question), the possibilities of vision and insight seem almost to decrease. Even as it explores familiar deceits and self-delusions, When Did You Last See Your Father? feels, in the end, as if it’s entangled in them.