Friday July 23, 1999
Hugh Hudson's "My Life So Far" lulls you into thinking you're watching yet another of those charming British memoirs of a childhood spent in a large, aristocratic household between the wars. This sumptuous film is all that, but there's a twist: It's the father who comes of age rather than the son. It's also a film that proceeds from one vignette to another; only when it reaches its climax do you realize that it's been quietly adding up all the while.
Directed with verve and subtlety by Hudson, whose affinity for British period pieces has also informed both the Oscar-laden "Chariots of Fire" and "Greystoke," "My Life So Far" has been skillfully adapted by Simon Donald from "Son of Adam," the childhood memoir of renowned television executive Sir Denis Forman. (The film is dedicated to the late co-star of "Chariots of Fire," Ian Charleson.)
The father in question is Edward Pettigrew (Colin Firth), a largely feckless inventor with twin passions, the Bible and Beethoven. He and his wife, Moira (Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio), a woman whose forbearance equals her beauty, and their children live in a vast faux castle in the Scottish Highlands, nestled between a lake and the mountains. The estate is that of Moira's family, and it is run with a kindly, if magisterial, hand by Edward's widowed mother-in-law (Rosemary Harris).
Edward is quixotic, to say the least. He's great with kids--and the estate seems overrun with relatives and visitors--but he can swiftly turn severe. His experiments are many and largely impractical, but his key interest is in running the only moss factory in Europe. Edward had been among the first to appreciate the medicinal properties of the plant, which was put to good use during World War II.
He's processing the moss to make soap, a cologne and an unguent. Moira's older brother Morris (Malcolm McDowell), who made his fortune in Liverpool before moving to London, periodically turns up to throw his weight around. He does little to mask his contempt for Edward and complains loudly that the estate needs to be generating a profitable income, but his mother, whose word is law, points out that the estate is a home, not a business.
Since the time is circa 1933, in the depths of the Great Depression, you have to wonder if the matriarch is just a tad out of touch. (You also have to wonder whether primogeniture is still in force and if so, what will be its effect on the family's fortunes.) The larger point is that Edward and Morris are men with both strengths and failings. But their chronic personality clash takes on a new dimension when Morris arrives with his fiancee, Heloise (Irene Jacob), a beautiful cellist, who at 24 is less than half Morris' age. Firth is a stocky man of sensual features and, like early movie star Richard Dix, whom he resembles, is skilled at playing forthright yet priggish men who unexpectedly find themselves overcome with passion. In short, Edward makes a pass at the indignant Heloise, an act that has unforeseen consequences.
Despite all the escalating tensions, Edward and Moira's bright, inquisitive 10-year-old son Fraser (Robert Norman) is a happy child, basking in such a glorious environment and in the affection of so many doting relatives and servants. Fraser is old enough to express his desire to live always at the estate at just the moment we in the audience--if not all the adults on the screen--are experiencing the feeling that in a rapidly darkening world of economic depression and slowly gathering war clouds, this privileged way of life surely cannot go on undisturbed for much longer. At the very least the peacekeeping matriarch cannot be expected to live forever.
Hudson's actors form a perfectly modulated ensemble in which the principals glow, revealing the complexities and contradictions of their characters. (Stick with the picture and you will discover why Mastrantonio accepted so seemingly secondary a role.) As so many British pictures do, the handsome "My Life So Far" recaptures a vanished way of life, but it's not all nostalgia.
My Life So Far, 1999. PG-13, for sexual content, including some nude pictures. A Miramax Films presentation in association with the Scottish Arts Council Lottery Fund of an Enigma production in association with Hugh Hudson. Director Hugh Hudson. Producers David Puttnam, Steve Norris. Executive producers Bob Weinstein, Harvey Weinstein, Paul Webster. Screenplay Simon Donald; based on "Son of Adam" by Sir Denis Forman. Cinematographer Bernard Lutic. Editor Scott Thomas. Music Howard Blake. Costumes Emma Porteous. Production designer Andy Harris. Art director John Frankish. Set decorator Gillie Delap. Running time: 1 hour, 39 minutes. Christian Campbell as Gabriel. J.P. Pitoc as Mark. Tori Spelling as Katherine. Steve Hayes as Perry. Brad Beyer as Rich. Lorri Bagley as Judy. Colin Firth as Edward Pettigrew. Rosemary Harris as Gamma Macintosh. Irene Jacob as Heloise Macintosh. Tcheky Karyo as Gabriel Chenoux. Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio as Moira Macintosh Pettigrew. Malcolm McDowell as Morris Macintosh. Robert Norman as Fraser Pettigrew.Copyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun