Film Reviews

Like father, like son

Ten-year-old Fraser Pettigrew leads an idyllic existence. He lives on a bucolic estate in Scotland with five siblings, four dogs, his gentle mother Moira (Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio), eccentric inventor father Edward (Colin Firth), and indomitable grandmother Gamma Macintosh (Rosemary Harris). For Fraser (Robert Norman, making his professional acting debut), life at Kiloran House is one carefree adventure after another: roaming the surrounding forests, visiting with the downstairs staff, and prowling the attic, where he stumbles upon his late grandfather's secret trove of racy photographs and erotic literature.

Fraser's favorite adventures, however, are those engineered by his incorrigibly boyish father, whose fervent imagination and madcap schemes make him nearly as childlike as his son. Founder of the first -- and only -- sphagnum moss factory on the European continent, Edward is viewed by the locals as something of a crackpot, but he is adored by both his wife and his children.

An exceedingly charming coming-of-age drama, My Life So Far concerns what happens when Uncle Morris (Malcolm McDowell), Moira's brother and the heir to Gamma's estate, arrives at Kiloran House with his enchanting, much younger French fiancée, Heloise (Irene Jacob). Everyone falls madly in love with the vivacious visitor, including not only Fraser but also the impetuous, irresponsible Edward. The fallout from Edward's infatuation with his future sister-in-law affects the entire household. It marks a watershed in Fraser's own young life as the idealized image he has always held of his father crumbles and, for the first time, Fraser sees him as a flawed and fallible human being.

Based on the autobiography of Sir Denis Forman, chairman of the Royal Opera House in Covent Garden, My Life So Far takes place in the period between this century's two great wars and focuses on a privileged, almost fairy-tale way of life that all but died out with the advent of World War II. It was a cloistered, protected environment, and the filmmakers do a wonderful job of capturing the sense of magical isolation that surrounded the upper classes. Fans of British television's many Victorian/Edwardian-era series will luxuriate in the picture's Upstairs, Downstairs atmosphere, which extended to Georgian England as well. (King George V was sitting on the throne in 1927, the year the film is set, although his reign lacked the cachet of his immediate predecessors.) Special mention should be made of composer Howard Blake's lovely, Scottish-tinged score, which adds to the film's nostalgic, romantic feel.

Given the bittersweet nature of the story's subject matter, it isn't surprising that the film should display moments of both humor and poignancy. But it also contains an unexpected air of wisdom and a commendable respect for its central characters, allowing them a complexity that gives the film a welcome weight. Firth (Shakespeare in Love, The English Patient) captures Edward's boyish charm as well as his unforgivable recklessness and does not hesitate to make his character increasingly unsympathetic as the story progresses.

Norman is exceedingly winning in his film debut, conveying a nice combination of maturity and naiveté along with an appealing, adventurous spirit. Jacob and McDowell fill their roles nicely, while veteran stage and screen star Harris lends a formidable presence, making Gamma a woman at once forbidding and loving. Mastrantonio (recently seen in John Sayles' Limbo) is the weak link in the film, a result, perhaps, of a script that consigns her to playing the quiet, self-effacing maternal figure. So bland is her performance that she evinces hardly any personality at all until the final few minutes of the movie. At that point she rises admirably to the occasion, but it's too late to erase the dull impression left by the preceding 90 minutes.

My Life So Far is notable for reuniting British director Hugh Hudson with producer David Puttnam, who last worked together on the Academy Award-winning Chariots of Fire. Hudson (Greystoke: Legend of Tarzan, Revolution) has made few films over the years, and it's nice to see him tackling a rather small, intimate story again. On several occasions, the movie veers dangerously close to an affected quaintness and cutesiness, but each time Hudson manages to reel it in again. Fans of such films as An Ideal Husband and Tea With Mussolini will definitely want to put this one on their lists. And thanks to its engaging young hero, this gently amusing and bittersweet tale should appeal to precocious children as much as it does to adults.

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Jean Oppenheimer