Ask a film director what's most important to the success of a picture, and one commonly gets the answer "Casting, casting, casting." And indeed casting proves the key to director Anand Tucker adapting Blake Morrison's memoir of life with father into a leading British film, When Did You Last See Your Father? A drama of father and son rediscovering each other under the worst circumstances—and after years of testiness—requires a credible family pairing, and Tucker delivers a stroke of casting so perfect it might seem obvious: Oscar winner Jim Broadbent as the father and Colin Firth as the son.
Firth stars as Morrison, whose gregarious father Arthur—bedridden with terminal cancer in 1989—has been a lifelong source of mixed feelings. As per David Nicholls script, flashbacks to the '60s reveal how Blake's boyhood idolatry soured into simmering anger as he became more conscious of his father's failings. Morrison is played first by young Bradley Johnson as an admiring squire to his father's ability to "talk his way into and out of anything," and then by Matthew Beard as a perpetually embarrassed teen. Beard's Morrison can no longer ignore his father's neglect of his long-suffering wife: Juliet Stevenson imbues the small role with emotional layering. Meanwhile, the teen Morrison is tentatively setting out to sow his own wild oats, but finds himself repeatedly blocked and mocked by his irrepressible dad.
As an adult, the son's emotions are further complicated by his difficulty expressing his love for his father, even as he lies dying, and the growing realization that the son may be, in some ways, turning into his father. "Funny thing, the universe," Arthur muses. "Sort of scares the shit out of you, doesn't it?" To Nicholls and Tucker's credit, the film later literalizes the comment when Arthur contends with fecal vomiting. No soft-focus Camille, here—and the reality shores up what could slide into the overly sentimental or Oprah-atic melodrama.
Firth is spot-on in an emotionally tricky role, delineating each conflicting emotion with precise clarity and, in the home stretch, a crucial warmth that never gets sticky. Broadbent delivers another fine performance—both in his chatty text and his volumes of subtext. The veteran actor handily condenses the elder Morrison's public and private selves: the charmer around friends, neighbors, and strangers, and who he is when he's at home: pulling a disappearing act to serve himself, calling Blake "Fathead" or, later, "Moneybags," and just when he seems to have pushed it to the limit, redeeming himself with a moment of grace, like an impromptu driving lesson Blake will never forget. Even when Tucker's pace is somewhat listless, and he overdoes it with the imagery of multi-paned mirrors (as a reflection of the many angles he takes on his father), he's always got that cast.