And When Did You Last See Your Father? Book Review

when-did-you-last-see-your-father-book-cover2I saw the movie When Did You Last See Your Father? at the Toronto International Film Festival last September, twice. I didn’t have the chance to read the book until a couple of days ago, about 7 months later. But as I read, all the scenes came back to me, and I appreciate the film even more than before. Yes, this is definitely a successful attempt at turning Book Into Film…and a hugely impressive one at that. The stellar cast with Jim Broadbent as the father and Colin Firth as the adult son, plus the exceptional supporting roles have brought out the spirit and the essence of the book poignantly, thanks to the very artistic and sensitive treatment by director Anand Tucker. To read my review of the movie, click here.

Blake Morrison is a contemporary British poet and writer. He was literary editor of The Observer and the Independent on Sunday before writing full time in 1995. AWDYLSYF is a memoir of his relationship with his father, Arthur Morrison, who died of cancer at age 75. Published in 1993, the book has won literary awards, and has been translated into many languages, from Japanese to Syrian.

The name of the book has its source in a painting of the same title by the Victorian artist W. F. Yeames. Yeames depicted an imaginary scene during the English Civil War. The young son of a Cavalier (Royalist) was questioned publicly by the enemy, the Roundheads (Parliamentarian), as to the whereabouts of his father. The question posed a serious dilemma for the boy. If he answered truthfully, he would endanger his father. If not, he would be commiting the immoral act of lying. Click here to read the story behind the painting.

And Painting by W. F. Yeames, When Did You Last See Your Father

Such a dilemma finds a parallel in the book. And it is apparent that Morrison has chosen to do the former, for the story he tells is incredibly candid, up-close and personal. As a reader, I’m glad he has done that. Eulogies are sometimes euphemism honoring the dead in order to please the living. But what Morrison has delivered is a courageously honest narrative of a precarious father-son relationship marked by ambivalence and love-hate sentiments. I can sense the pain such exposure could bring to the people involved, his mother, his sister, close family and friends. But I feel Morrison has burst the romantic bubble of the naturally congenial relationships we assume as we look at other people’s family portraits, or see families depicted in movies and novels. Love does not come naturally because of the tie that binds. Respect still needs to be earned, and loving acts need to be learned, for both parent and child.

The 20 independent, short chapters darting back and forth across the landscape of memory record the poignant reminiscence of a son living under the shadow of a powerful father. Arthur Morrison was a revered doctor in the town of Earby, in the County of Yorkshire…revered because of his imposing, domineering and callous demeanor. He could always get his way, and get out of troubles. In his recalling of childhood episodes, son Blake has aptly intermingled humor with pathos, all the more bringing out the complexity of character, and the ambivalence we sometimes feel towards our loved ones.  And to be fair, Arthur had cared for his family, albeit in his own patriarchal and egotistic manner.

He was gregarious.  In all social situations, he was the one leading the conversation and successfully avoiding topics that he was ignorant about…and was sure to stay away from games like Trivial Pursuit.

He hates feeling fallible: ‘I may not be right but I’m never wrong’ is the motto on a horrible brass wall-plate he has. He isn’t a vain man, but he is a proud, even bumptious one, a man with a puffed chest who learnt to water-ski in his fifties and thought he could go on forever.

How can such a character be brought to face his own imminent demise? Blake Morrison describes his father’s fast deterioration after diagnosed with cancer. The preparation though seemed to be harder for those who were going to be left behind than the patient himself. There was a relationship that needed mending, and, there were truths to be revealed. For years, Morrison had suspected the intimate relationship between his father and Auntie Beaty, a family friend. It had affected his perspective on his father, and on himself as a son. But he wasn’t given such a privilege. Other people’s secrets are theirs to own, even though that person is your father. And the living won’t tell: “Please leave me one last small piece–it’s mine” Auntie Beaty pleaded.

So the pressing question is: How is a son to prepare for the imminent demise of his own father, having lived in such a precarious relationship? The revelation comes at the end of the book. Death and mortality has a way of helping us put things in perspective:

Don’t underestimate filial grief, don’t think because you no longer live with your parents, have had a difficult relationship with them, are grown up and perhaps a parent yourself, don’t think that will make it any easier when they die.

Faced with the finality of death, all grievances one has towards the dying seem minute in comparison. As a son now, Blake has to learn to let go of his father, ironically, a lesson his father had failed to learn in the raising of his own son. Grievances give way to caring, to the consoling of the living, to the respect of a life lived on its own terms, to forgiveness, to closure.

In his Afterword, Morrison writes:

When young, we were impatient with our parents: now we want to atone for our callowness, and to acknowledge what they were and all they did.

Poignant words for us to ponder.

And when did you last see your father? by Blake Morrison is published by Granta Books, London. 1993. 230 Pages.

A movie tie-in edition by Granta Books is published October 2007.
~ ~ ~ ½ Ripples

When Did You Last See Your Father?


I have the chance to soak in the frenzy of the Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF) these past few days in the big TO. The largest film fest in the world, this year TIFF offers over 300 films from 60 countries from September 6 to 15, a delectable smorgasbord for movie lovers . On Saturday, Sept. 8th at 7:00 pm, while the enthusiastic crowd gathered along the barricades outside the Elgin Theatre on Yonge Street, hoping to get a glimpse of Brad Pitt on the red carpet, I lined up patiently with a less boisterous group of ticket holders outside the same building an hour early to get into the Winter Garden Theatre for the premiere screening of When Did You Last See Your Father?

Based on the award-winning and highly acclaimed memoir written by British author Blake Morrison, WDYLSYF is a fine piece of artistry crafted by some of today’s top British talents. Director Anand Tucker’s work includes the Oscar nominated and BAFTA winning Hilary and Jackie (1998), and co-producing Girl With a Pearl Earring (2003), another Oscar nominee and numerous European film award winner. The stellar cast of WDYLSYF is led by Jim Broadbent and Colin Firth, playing father Arthur and son Blake Morrison, with strong supporting roles from Juliet Stevenson as the mother and newcomer Matthew Beard, who plays the teenage Blake.

When Did You Last See Your Father

The words “A True Story” in the opening credits prepared the audience for something real and meaningful. We were led to explore a multi-layered and poignant story about a fragile father-son relationship that is brought to the forefront at the father’s imminent death from cancer. Jim Broadbrent could well deserve an acting nomination as the ailing father, headstrong, overbearing, and ever the victor in whatever circumstances, even in the face of terminal illness. Colin Firth aptly portrays the middle-aged Blake, already an acclaimed writer and poet, yet still waiting to hear from his father the two precious words he has longed for all his life: “well done”.

Intense but not draining, the director effectively sprinkles enough comic relief at the right moments to move the story along with poignancy but steers the viewers away from sentimentality. I always think that Colin Firth excels in subtle, understated acting, his every gaze speaks volume. Here again he has shown once more that he is a master of this craft.

However, I must admit that Matthew Beard, a first time film actor who plays the teenage Blake shines with his natural and superb performance, bringing out the love/hate sentiments he has harboured towards his father from the various situations he has been pushed into, such as the reluctant camping trip, the impromptu driving lesson, the numerous embarrassment and even public humiliation he has suffered from his father’s brash and insensitive comments…but above all, from the burden he has to bear as a witness to the wrongs of his own parent.

The restrained acting by the stellar cast effectively conveys the pathos and conflicting family relationships as well as the ambivalence of a son trying to come to terms with resentment towards a callous, egotistic, and dying father. Firth’s subtle characterization of the adult Blake poignantly portrays the crux of his torments. It is a painful relief at the end of the movie when he realizes that sometimes one has to resolve anger and disappointment on one’s own, unilaterally, including the most difficult discipline, forgiveness and the letting go. If the victim has forgiven, should the witness keeps on holding grudges? There’s no simple answer, and the film has successfully dealt with such conflicts through the multi-layered characterization and the reflective shots through mirrors in many scenes.

Filmed mostly on location in beautiful Derbyshire, England, the movie’s inspiring cinematography works like a soothing balm, together with the light-hearted and nostalgic childhood scenes, the film is an enjoyable visual treat. Again, such is the real portrayal of the issues we face, natural beauty can sometimes offset the darker side of human nature. Humour and pathos can co-exist.

A bonus in going to film festival screening is the chance to hear the makers of the movie reflect on their work. The audience was pleasantly surprised to see the director Anand Tucker and actor Jim Broadbent come on stage to answer questions after the movie. Listening to them, I felt that I’d only discovered the outer layer of a very complex and pleasurable artifact that I wanted to see the movie all over again.

And so I did two days later.

~ ~ ~ Ripples



To read my review of the book And When Did You Last See Your Father? Click here.