Time tends to dull memories while sharpening the emotions behind them. It's the memoirist's duty to turn down the rosy glow of happy moments and resist the urge to settle scores started in all those unhappy times that prompted the memoir urge in the first place. Adapting a bestselling account of life as the son of an eccentric father by U.K. Yorkshire-born poet and novelist Blake Morrison, When Did You Last See Your Father? nicely balances moments of childhood trauma with a full appreciation of the man whose enthusiasm for high spirits sometimes came at considerable cost to those around him.
Serving notice that his range extends beyond non-descript leading-man parts, Colin Firth plays Morrison as an adult, first seen in 1989 on the verge of accepting a literary award his father (Jim Broadbent, in as good of a performance as he's ever given) can't fully appreciate since it always made more sense to him for his son to pursue something practical. (He enjoys attending the ceremony, however, since it means talking to the nice bearded chap who wrote The Satanic Verses.) First seen in flashback scamming his way into the members-only section of a motor race, Broadbent conveys an instantly winning charm that's curdled for those around him. They've heard all his jokes, tired of all his stock phrases, and seen that his good-time-Charlie ways can mask a selfish streak. The family has long run on a mix of love, frustration, and an agreement to look the other way on some issues. But just as Firth begins to receive acclaim, Broadbent falls ill, forcing his son to confront the past.
The film follows, weaving flashbacks of a childhood spent with a man "lost if he couldn't cheat in a small way" into an unflinching look at the same man's final, bedridden days. As he did in Hillary And Jackie, director Anand Tucker (who also directed Shopgirl) brings a delicate touch to heavy material and an evenhanded approach to some uneven family dynamics. While his staging can sometimes feel overly posed, Tucker elegantly lets past and present rhyme against one another, particularly in a long, lyrical passage covering a father-son road trip. Trouble only really sets in as the film starts to wind down and struggles to tie all those observations together a little too neatly. It's too true to life not to resist an easy conclusion.