My Life so Far (United Kingdom, 1999)
My Life So Far is a pleasantly nostalgic look at a few transformative months in the life of a 10-year old Scottish boy. Brought to the screen by director Hugh Hudson and producer David Puttnam (who collaborated on Chariots of Fire), My Life So Far provides 90 minutes of solid entertainment that runs the gamut from outright hilarity to melodrama. The film doesn't offer many surprises or deep insights into human nature, but it possesses an easygoing charm and likability that overcomes such potential deficiencies.
The place is Argyll, Scotland. The time is the late-1920s, a "safe" era in Europe when the horrors of the Great War are receding into the past and Hitler's proclamations are not yet shaking the firmament. Fraser Pettigrew (Robbie Norman) is an average child growing up in a somewhat abnormal household. He lives with his family on the estate of Kiloran, a vast, sprawling piece of the countryside that houses The Pettigrew Sphagnum Moss Factory (the only one of its kind in the world). Fraser's father, Edward (Colin Firth), is an unsuccessful inventor with two passions: Beethoven ("the sound of God talking in his sleep") and the Bible. He has a deep and abiding love for his children, and shares a special bond with Fraser. Also living in Kiloran Castle are Edward's wife, Moira (Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio, struggling mightily with her accent), and his mother-in-law, Gamma Macintosh (Rosemary Harris), who owns the land. Moira's brother, Morris (Malcolm McDowell), is a frequent visitor. His relationship with Edward is stormy but he gets along well with his nephews. The catalyst for change is the arrival of Morris' finacée, a French cellist named Heloise (Irène Jacob), who is half her intended husband's age. Fraser develops a childlike crush on the beautiful, soft-spoken woman, but Edward's infatuation is of a more adult, and potentially damaging, nature.
One interesting and successful aspect of My Life So Far is Hudson's ability to present the story from a dual perspective. As viewers, we see events both through Fraser's naïve eyes and through the detached point-of-view of an omniscient observer. Consequently, we are able to appreciate circumstances and understand characters on more than one level. The film is constructed like a collage of memories (and is based on Sire Denis Forman's autobiographical novel, Son of Adam), highlighting recollections of larger-than-life occurrences (such as the arrival of an airplane and its colorful pilot) and wrapping everything in the warm haze that often clouds our remembrances of childhood.
During the course of My Life So Far, Fraser learns truths about hypocrisy, death, and sex. He spends quite a bit of time in an attic, looking at pictures of naked women and reading through an "Encyclopedia of Ethics" that elaborates subjects he doesn't always understand. His incomplete comprehension of the activities performed by a prostitute leads to an uproarious scene that is as funny as anything this side of American Pie. Fraser also enjoys bath time, because it gives him an opportunity to peek down the dress of the maid who bathes him, an experience he describes as being "better than looking at the pictures."
Robbie Norman's portrayal of Fraser is natural and unaffected, and aids in our ability to see events from the 10-year old viewpoint. Colin Firth, who has played villains (Shakespeare in Love's Lord Wessex) and heroes (Pride and Prejudice's Mr. Darcy) over the course of his career, gives a dynamic performance as Edward, who is both and neither. At different points throughout the film, Firth has the opportunity to present his character as a buffoon (when one of his inventions goes wrong), a deeply loving father, and a tortured and sexually obsessed man. Malcolm McDowell takes a detour from his usual gallery of oddball characters to play a distinguished gentleman. Rosemary Harris and Irène Jacob (still best known as the leads in Kieslowski's The Double Life of Veronique and Red) are both delightful, although their screen time is limited. And Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio (recently seen in John Sayles' Limbo) makes such a small contribution that it's easy to forget she's in the cast - at least until the final scenes, when she is finally given something to do.
My Life So Far features many beautiful shots of the Scottish countryside as it tells the story of a group of generally well-detailed characters traipsing through a series of anecdotes. The film doesn't so much unravel a traditional narrative as it allows us to roam around for a short while in a different time and place. The difference between success and failure for a picture of this sort is whether the filmmakers engage the audience's attention and sympathy, and provoke an emotional response. With My Life So Far, Hudson's ability to meet those criteria makes this a rewarding movie-going experience.
My Life so Far (United Kingdom, 1999)
Cast: Robbie Norman, Colin Firth, Rosemary Harris, Irène Jacob, Tchéky Karyo, Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio, Malcolm McDowell
Screenplay: Simon Donald, based on Son of Adam by Sir Denis Forman
Cinematography: Bernard Lutic
Music: Howard Blake
U.S. Distributor: Miramax Films