FOR MANY performers, the idea that they might become “character actors” fills them with dread. But not Jim Broadbent, who has transformed the category in a career stretching to the late 1970s. His most recent effort, “When Did You Last See Your Father?,” opens on Friday and adds yet another distinctive exploration of the diverse human experience to his ever-growing portfolio.
“That is my niche,” he says of the character-actor label.
Some niche. This year alone, the Englishman has played Dean Charles Stanforth in “Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull” and, come November, will appear as professor Horace Slughorn in “Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince.” “I’m just always on the lookout for characters I haven’t done,” he says, though it’s essential that the script, director or cast captures the 59-year-old’s imagination.
“Jim’s one our finest living actors in the UK,” says Anand Tucker, who directed him -- alongside Colin Firth, Juliet Stevenson and Gina McKee -- in “When Did You Last See Your Father?,” an adaptation of poet Blake Morrison’s 1993 memoir of his father Arthur’s dying of cancer. “I don’t think there’s anything he can’t do. Working with him is like working with a force of nature.”
Morrison’s book, which was a bestseller in England, depicts the writer as he grapples with the mortality of his terminally ill father, a difficult and complex figure who functions as hero and (at times) villain. It’s a universal story that Broadbent, as Arthur, has invested with tremendous humor, emotional depth and sheer physical glee. “I like playing real people and finding their flaws,” he says. He describes Arthur, a charismatic doctor who carries on an extramarital affair that may or may not have led to an illegitimate child, as a “selfish man” whose love for his son “wasn’t clearly transmitted.”
Still, in a lot of ways, Arthur was a dream dad. Blake Morrison’s childhood -- in a 1950s and ‘60s England that was shifting from a Kingsley Amis kind of world (cocktails, red telephone boxes, adultery) to one that would produce the British Invasion bands -- was filled with sports cars, impromptu camping trips and family holidays in which father and son roomed together as “chaps.” But Arthur also tormented and embarrassed Blake and took years to accept his son’s decision to pursue literature rather than medicine. Newcomer Matthew Beard plays the desperately self-conscious teenage Blake, and Firth takes on the tense, mournful grown-up Blake.
Broadbent’s performance bridges the decades. In some scenes, he’s outfitted in walking shorts, Wellington boots and a duffle coat, forcing Blake to test out plastic sleeping bags of his own design or teaching the boy to drive a roadster. In other scenes, he’s pajama-clad, bedridden and in swift decline. This time-travel structure builds to an emotional climax in which the younger Blake and the mature Blake say goodbye. It’s almost assured to reduce audiences to uncontrolled weeping and should cause a few wayward sons to speed dial their dads before the credits have stopped rolling.
The film’s title isn’t just a warning about losing the opportunity to have an adult relationship with a parent; it’s a plea to recall a father not in his final moments but at a time when he was fully himself, with the good and bad and everything in between not yet leavened by death. This intricate exercise appealed to Broadbent, whose own father died of cancer when the actor was only 22. For the final, cathartic scenes, he drew on his own recollections to wrenching effect. “I used memories I had of my father and memories I wish I’d had. Like telling him I loved him when he was dying. I remembered his reaction, even though he was terribly ill. That was all part of my emotional journey.”
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Where you’ve seen him
Jim Broadbent hit it big when he won a supporting actor Oscar for his portrayal in “Iris” (2001) of John Bayley, who struggled with novelist wife Iris Murdoch’s Alzheimer’s disease. He also appeared in “Bridget Jones’s Diary” and Baz Lurhmann’s postmodern musical, “Moulin Rouge!,” that same year. On several occasions he has portrayed historical figures, including the duke of Buckingham in “Richard III” and Boss Tweed in Martin Scorsese’s “Gangs of New York.” In addition to Scorsese, he has worked with Woody Allen in “Bullets Over Broadway,” Neil Jordan in “The Crying Game” and Terry Gilliam in “Brazil.”