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Originally published Friday, June 27, 2008 at 12:00 AM

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Movie review

"When Did You Last See Your Father?": a thorn-in-his-side dad

Strong performances carry this familiar but always intelligent British rites-of-passage story about a philandering doctor and his much-mocked...

Special to The Seattle Times

Movie review 3 stars

"When Did You Last See Your Father?" with Colin Firth, Jim Broadbent, Juliet Stevenson, Sarah Lancashire. Directed by Anand Tucker, from a screenplay by David Nicholls, based on a memoir by Blake Morrison. 92 minutes. Rated PG-13 for sexual content, thematic material and brief strong language. Seven Gables.

Strong performances carry this familiar but always intelligent British rites-of-passage story about a philandering doctor and his much-mocked son.

The one great distinction of "When Did You Last See Your Father?" is Jim Broadbent's daringly abrasive performance as Arthur Morrison, a seemingly boorish man who makes cruel jokes (often at the expense of his son, Blake) and only gradually reveals his humanity.

Arthur is a genius at turning a Christmas party into a nightmare, or upstaging his only son, or making a muddy mess of a camping trip. He seems unforgivable, especially in his cavalier treatment of his amazingly patient wife, yet Blake recognizes that there's another side to him.

Matthew Beard plays the teenage Blake, who grew up to become a deeply insecure poet. He also became the author of a 1993 memoir about his relationship with his father, who died of cancer before its publication. David Nicholls' well-crafted screenplay is based on that book.

Nicholls begins by telling us that this is "a true story," then places it in the larger context of a universe that seems indifferent to human extinction. The movie gradually becomes a meditation on mortality — specifically the extinction of someone who seems infallible and invincible until death becomes inevitable.

Convincing as Beard is in the adolescent scenes (in which Arthur embarrasses his son with hopeless discussions of hormones), Colin Firth is even better as the middle-age Blake. Mostly successful at hiding his resentment of his father, the grown-up Blake is almost a caricature of British reserve. Firth makes him just vulnerable enough to resist a Monty Python echo.

Juliet Stevenson makes the most of her scenes as Arthur's humiliated wife, Kim, and Sarah Lancashire brings some juice to her role as a brassy family friend, who seems way too intimate with Arthur. The characters may be marginal, but Stevenson and Lancashire don't play them that way.

The director, Anand Tucker, favors busy camerawork that sometimes gets in the way (there's some split-screen weirdness with mirror images of Arthur and Blake), but he's exceptional with actors and with this kind of material.

Tucker explored similarly tricky family relationships in 1998's "Hilary and Jackie," which was also based on fact. In both films, the details are so persuasive, the casting so spot on, that the characters are never reduced to clichés.

John Hartl: johnhartl@yahoo.com

Copyright © 2008 The Seattle Times Company

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