I had great respect for my father as a professional man of demonstrable achievement. I admired the affection he commanded from his friends, but he was never comfortable with the members of his own family, me, his only son, in particular. When he lay dying in 1997, a friend, who knew us both well, worried that Dad would die without our resolving 'our issues." Sadly, her fears were realized. Thereafter, a father-son reconciliation could be accomplished only through grieving acts of memory and the grace of yearning. That's the exact story arc of Tucker's film.
Based on the memoir by Blake Morrison and benefiting from an artful and heartfelt screenplay by David Nichols, When Did You Last See Your Father? is the story of award-winning poet Morrison's tortured relationship with his country-doctor father, Arthur (Jim Broadbent). Blake (Colin Firth) is the happily married father of two when he learns that Arthur is quickly slipping away due to cancer. As he sits vigil at his father's bedside, he craves a healing exchange. But his father has little strength and few lucid moments, and Blake is left adrift in the past.
The Arthur we meet in Blake's memory is loud, opinionated, boastful and headstrong. Arthur is a vicious tease, never quite sensing when his verbal roughhousing has gone too far. Though he doesn't seem to intend to wound when he does it, Arthur has an ugly habit of calling his son, 'fathead." He is not a man who can easily admit to being wrong. He twists his own acts of stubbornness and stupidity in order to disparage his son's lack of toughness in the face of adversity. Arthur is the kind of father who must not only best his son at every competition but rub Blake's nose in defeat after the contest is decided. Arthur is also not the most faithful of husbands. Save for the fact that she obviously loves him, we are never clear why Blake's mother Kim (Juliet Stevenson) puts up with Arthur's apparently endless series of infidelities, including a long-term relationship with a woman (Sarah Lancashire) who has perhaps borne him a child. Most damning, Arthur incessantly disparages Blake's decision to pursue a career in writing. He belittles Blake's potential earning power and scoffs at the importance of Blake's literary prizes.
In short, the Arthur that Blake remembers is annoying and worse. The trick for the filmmakers is somehow to find a way to save Arthur " for his own sake, but more importantly, for the sake of his son. They do this by accretion. First, Blake is not without failings himself. Arthur, meanwhile, is clumsy and insensitive, but he's never purposely cruel. He teases too harshly, but he's not physically abusive. And though he's frequently aggravating, he does seem to enjoy spending time with Blake. The event may be a disaster, but they do go camping. They do play miniature golf. Arthur does teach Blake to drive.
In sum, though it takes the occasion of his dad's dying for Blake to understand, Arthur is at least an average father, maybe better than that. He has his failings, for sure. But he doesn't fail for lack of devotion. Arthur loves Blake, and he tells his son so. And in this Blake is more fortunate than he long comprehends. Even as my dad lay dying, I ached to hear him finally say, 'I love you, son." He would have, I believe, had he had the strength at the end, had he lasted just a little longer.