Verdict: Pitch-perfect adaptation of best-selling memoir is another triumph for Broadbent.
By turns bracingly honest and almost painfully funny, Blake Morrison's evocative 1993 memoir of his problematic relationship with his blundering but big-hearted father is one of the finest in a cluttered genre. And, despite the occasionally irritating kinetic camerawork, writer David Nicholls (Starter for 10) and director Tucker (Hilary and Jackie) make a fine fist of adapting a work in which much of the action is internal.
The father concerned is Yorkshire village GP Arthur (Broadbent), a irredeemably charming rogue whose fondness for venial scams is a source of endless embarrassment to his family, including his doctor wife Kim (Stevenson): the film, like the book, opens with a hilarious scene in which he leaps a queue several miles long for a race meeting ("I'm a doctor; there's been an accident!" he calls out as he glides past).
It then settles into a beautiful rhythm, gently interleaving scenes from Blake's boyhood and adolescence before Blake (Firth), returns home in mid-life to see his dying father.
Nicholls' adaptation finds echoes in the narrative that may have eluded even the original writer and Tucker takes the cue, in several scenes panning across a set, to leap the years in a second or two, gently underlining how the past weighs on the present for as long as we refuse to lay its burdens aside.
Father spurns the classical narrative rhythms - the dramatic high point is a flooded tent - and the film, for that reason, seems more like Sunday evening telly than the movies, but there is more authentic human drama in here than in a week at the multiplex. And it's not all gloom and angst: Blake's first driving lesson in the family Alvis is a fine scene.
In the end, though, it is pre-eminently an actors' piece and Broadbent adds triumphantly to his expanding gallery of memorable characters. Cheerful, blustering and sly in life, his Arthur is touchingly fragile and slightly desperate as death approaches: "We've been happy, haven't we?" he says, pleadingly to the wife and son whose feelings he has so often clumsily hurt. Stevenson, too, surely the most reliably superb English actress of her generation, is beyond praise, distilling oceans of feeling into tiny, fine gestures or expressions and lending a dignified complexity to Blake's mum.
Firth's performance is, likewise, much more than meets the eye. We're so used to actors grandly emoting, that an actor playing a man whose feelings are choked can seem to be doing nothing at all. What Firth does here is a perfect correlative of what Morrison did: he finds in a lifetime of stitched-up adolescent rage the perfect medium of self-expression.
- Peter Calder
Cast: Jim Broadbent, Colin Firth, Juliet Stevenson, Gina McKee, Sarah Lancashire
Director: Anand Tucker
Running time: 92 mins
Rating: M (sex scenes, offensive language)
Screening: Berkeley Takapuna, Berkeley Mission Bay, Bridgeway, Rialto, SkyCity Highland Park