The great British actor Jim Broadbent" has always had a rude, spiky force that seems to emanate from his slightly odd-duck features the ski-slope nose and zonked leer of a grin, the eyes that bulge with gleeful impropriety, as if to let you know how much of the world he can take in with them. It was a shrewd stroke to cast an unruly presence like Broadbent in When Did You Last See Your Father?, the wee and intimate tale of a son who must come to grips with the death of his difficult, domineering, lust-for-life dad.
Based on Blake Morrison's 1993 novel, the movie shows us Arthur Morrison (Broadbent) at several key ages. At the end of his life, he's lying in bed at home, dying of cancer, attended to by his wife (Juliet Stevenson) and his dutiful but distant and morose son, Blake (Colin Firth). From here, the movie keeps flashing back to decades earlier, when Blake was a sensitive 14-year-old boy (Matthew Beard) who saw his father as a selfish cad and came to hate him for it. (There are also scenes with Blake at 8, played by Bradley Johnson.) We can see what a blustery old goat Arthur was, always wanting others to share in his fun. The boy, in response, cultivates his own gentleness a fine thing, except that it's also his way of rationalizing his fear of girls, pretending that his anxiety puts him on a higher moral plane.
When Did You Last See Your Father? is a wistful miniature of a movie, yet it creates a provocative balance in the viewer. The director, Anand Tucker (Shopgirl), lines up the audience to be on Blake's side. In every frame, though, Broadbent captures how Arthur, this monumentally imperfect man, exudes love in his very flaws. Firth's Blake, coming to terms with that ambivalence as he holds Arthur's ravaged body in his arms, is perhaps a little too closed off in a rote stiff-upper-lip way. Yet by the end, we see what he's holding back. When Did You Last See Your Father? taps into the conflicting feelings so many of us can have about parents who haunt us because they're difficult, which is part of what makes them irreplaceable. B+