My Life So Far (UK, 1999) ***
Directed by Hugh Hudson. Written by Simon Donald, from the autobiographical book "Son of Adam" by Sir Denis Forman. Photography, Bernard Lutic. Editing, Scott Thomas. Production design, Andy Harris. Music , Howard Blake. Produced by David Puttnam and Steve Norris. Cast: Colin Firth (Edward Pettigrew), Rosemary Harris (Gamma Macintosh), Irene Jacob (Heloise), Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio (Moira Pettigrew), Malcolm McDowell (Uncle Morris Macintosh), Robert Norman (Fraser Pettigrew), Tcheky Karyo (Gabriel Chenoux), Kelly MacDonald (Elspeth Pettigrew), et al. A Miramax release. 93 minutes. PG-13
A nice picture and a small relief from the mercilessness of so much screen superficiality, action, unconvincing romances, jejune subjects, teen flicks and such. Ironically, My Life So Far, a film that's rather "personal" and will best be appreciated by true adults, co-stars and is narrated by a child.
It is also a family movie, literally, as its subject is a family of Scots in Scotland in an undetermined year which might be in the late 1920s or the early 1930s. (The film does have a number of vague aspects, perhaps caused by its having been made in 1997 and oft-fiddled with before its release in 1999).
The Pettigrews, their brood and their ubiquitous dogs (the latter fine performers)live in Argyll, live in the Highlands of Western Scotland. They are landed gentry, or rather wish they were. Kiloran House, their manor (or is it a castle?) and its estate are owned by the mother of Moira (i. e. Mrs. Pettigrew), the stern but loving and loved Gamma (i. e. Grandmother) Macintosh, a widow. She lives there with the Pettigrews.
The film begins as 5-year old Fraser Pettigrew, a daredevil with a mind of his own, starts a commotion with his walk around the edge of Kiloran House, gets brought down by his father Edward. It is a helpful scene which without fuss sets a certain tone. Fraser is neither scolded nor punished. The large crowd of onlookers gives you an idea about the number of servants, guests and perhaps neighbors. The tone is set for the warmth of the family and especially the father-and-son feelings, and for presenting dad as gutsy. He's also a passionate inventor-experimenter.
Cut to the main story, which is simply one year of family life. Fraser is now 10. The Pettigrew children number six. Mother Moira puts up with her duties (including lots of visitors and dinner guests) with cheerful efficiency. She puts up with her husband's eccentricities, inventions, flights of fancy, and with his trying to secure his fortune by having the first sphagnum moss factory in the world. (It sounds like a weird notion, yet, during the Great War the moss was found to have antibacterial properties).
All is well in the colorful (but not too) family. Edward and Fraser are fast friends, go places and do things together. The father often behaves like a child. The child is in the throes of puberty. As the sap rises Fraser's curiosity about sex has found a lode of information (which he doesn't quite understand) in his late grandfather's library where books, many of them with sexual illustrations and naked women "educate" the curious boy in odd ways.
Note that the father is rather puritanical, traditionalist and conservative when it comes to mores. He has two great loves: Beethoven and the church. Music is played constantly on 78 rpm records that sound almost too good. The Beethovenitis is so inherent to Kiloran House that a maid knocks at a door as dot-dot-dot-DASH, like the opening of Beethoven's Fifth Symphony. That's my favorite bit in the movie.
My Life is narrated by Fraser, who is on-screen most of the time. He is played by an 11-year old pupil with no experience in film or stage. But while much of the "plot" is seen through the boy's eyes, not everything is.
Fraser's life, as well as that of everyone else around, is rather abruptly changed when Uncle Morris, the son of Gamma and brother of Moira shows up. There had always been tension between capitalist Morris and free-spirit Edward. Morris, who had gotten rich in Liverpool has always disapproved of Edward's schemes. This time he attacks the sphagnum moss business. Much more importantly, he brings along Heloise, a fiancee from France. She is 24 to his 50-plus and plays "the French Cello" (!). A gifted amateur, she regales all with music by Saint Saens and by Beethoven. This adds to her natural, innate sweetness and attractiveness. All fall for her, including Edward as well as Fraser.
Therein hangs the major development in the film, with tensions and events I will not divulge.
My Life has a great deal of charm, a very great deal of talk (interesting), a great deal of natural beauty. The landscapes will make you wish to see Scotland and its lochs, although the almost ever-present mists might not make people from the South of Europe or the U. S. A wish to establish permanent residence there.
There's a most serious side in which Heloise's presence causes Edward to be jealous of his son. There 's a wonderfully light side when jazz-lover Fraser (whose dad loathes that music) is joined at the piano by Heloise, then his mother, who sings very well (it is Mastrantonio's own voice). Or when the child tells Gramma: "If I were Jesus I'd turn into a swan or a bull. " He's obviously digested mythology and the amorous transformations of Zeus. Or when he asks his dad: "What's an orgy, Father?, " What are the temptations of the flesh?"
The imperfections of the movie are mostly in the area of editing: certain items distract the viewers by not giving them more orderly explanations of people and events. This results in what may or may not be irrelevancies or iffy scenes. Even so, the work is not seriously hurt. Its 93 minutes go by pleasantly.
MLSF's director Hugh Hudson made a big splash with his first movie, Chariots of Fire (1981, produced by David Puttnam) then made five more. After Greystoke: The Legend of Tarzan, Lord of the Apes (1989), he made no features for 10 years. His return to the screen his second collaboration with Puttnam, whose credits include such excellent titles as The Duellists, Midnight Express, Local Hero, The Killing Fields, Cal, The Mission and Meeting Venus.