Voyages around our fathers

Parents. Can’t live with ‘em, can’t live without ‘em.

And When Did You Last See Your Father? is not about fatherhood so much as what you might call sonhood.
The apple doesn’t fall far from the tree, says the proverb, and most of us spend a fair amount of time discovering, often to our chagrin, how much we are like our parents. For a son, this is particularly acute when it comes to dad. I’m getting used to seeing my father’s eyes appear in (and around) mine, more and more with each ageing year, as I look in the mirror. But I was still somewhat surprised to hear an in-law’s reported comment, a short while ago, that I reminded him so much of my father.

For I thought we were utterly unlike each other. In fact, it would not be an exaggeration to say that a structuring assumption of my self-perception in life has been that we were fundamentally different. I am not (I think) a big burly Afrikaner with racist views and a taste for sports, a larger-than-life entertainer with a dark, rage-filled side. Hopefully, though, I have inherited some of my father’s charm, and can choose to exercise it, or can find in me some of his infectious enthusiasm.

My father died suddenly a few years ago at the age of 59. I found more than a little to identify with in the movie adaptation of Blake Morrison’s bestselling memoir (or work of “life writing”), And When Did You Last See Your Father? —not just the basic conflict of personalities and expectations, or the complex entwinements of a father-son relationship, but the small clashes of temperament in the ordinary goings-on of life.

I laughed to see the young Blake, as fictionalised in the film, trying desperately to get on with reading his book when dad wanted to go out and do other stuff. I felt a shiver (or a shudder) of recognition at the precise characterisation of the older man as a public storyteller and hence something of a fantasist. Sitting in a pub, young Blake doesn’t know where to look when his father tells how their tent was flooded as they camped in a field—and it’s obvious the story is getting elaborated as it is retold. Now, in the new telling, Blake is leaping from the tent clad only in his underpants —

The perspective of the movie is that of the older Blake during the time of his father’s dying, and the narrative moves seamlessly back and forth between that time and his memories of the past—the time of Blake’s growing. The dying and the growing are blended in the making of a person and a life; to see that is to ask what (and who) makes us what we are.

His handsomeness slowly crumpling, Colin Firth is very good as Blake. Matthew Beard is equally good as the teenaged version. But, perhaps inevitably, it is Jim Broadbent who dominates the movie as Morrison Senior. He’s got a great twinkle about him, a tremendous energy, and he seems a lot of fun—even when he’s being embarrassing or annoying. His secrets, probed by his son, show his complexity. If part of the work of mourning (Freud’s Trauer-arbeit) is a psychic reconstruction of the lost loved one, then this story does the job magnificently.

The film’s mouthful of a title echoes a Victorian painting by WF Yeames, though it is justified within the film in other terms. The echo of the Yeames painting seems odd at first, but then it begins to make sense. This is a narrative painting and a “problem picture”—one posing a moral dilemma. (The Victorians found moral dilemmas poignant.) The scene is set during the English Civil War, when the Royalists were at war with the Parliamentarians. It depicts the young son of a Royalist being posed the titular question by a Parliamentarian in a setting reminiscent of a court of law.

It’s about betrayal versus loyalty, honesty versus familial ties. In revealing or at least probing his father’s secrets, in limning the conflicts between them, does Morrison betray him? Or is he just trying to be honest, about himself as well as dad, and thereby honouring him? What the film shows is that the testimony of life can be capable of doing both.

Shaun de Waal

Shaun de Waal

Shaun de Waal has worked at the Mail & Guardian since 1989. He was literary editor from 1991 to 2006 and chief film critic for 15 years. He is now editor-at-large. Recent publications include Exposure: Queer Fiction, 25 Years of the Mail & Guardian and Not the Movie of the Week. Read more from Shaun de Waal

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