My Life So Far” is an innocuous childhood memoir that only mildly evokes the special qualities of privileged life in between-the-wars Britain. Shot two years ago and reportedly subjected to repeated recutting and tinkering since then, Hugh Hudson’s first film in a decade emerges as an episodic, anecdotal affair of resolutely small moments, insights and charms. With no compelling selling points , this Miramax release world preemed in Cannes, outside the festival proper, as the lead-in to the AmFar benefit. It is skedded for July openings Stateside but looks to come and go quickly.
Based on the autobiography of British TV exec and current Royal Opera House director Sir Denis Forman, pic reunites Hudson and producer David Puttnam on a story set in roughly the same period as “Chariots of Fire.” The film is dedicated to that film’s late costar, Ian Charleson. But if a sense of discovery and drive energized that picture, “Life” has no urgency behind it at all, only a gentle nostalgia for a more innocent time when eccentricity and repressed passion ruled.
At Harewood House, an architecturally bizarre castle in the Scottish Highlands, elderly Gamma Macintosh (Rosemary Harris) sternly presides over a clan that includes her daughter Moira (Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio), latter’s oddball inventor husband Edward Pettigrew (Colin Firth) and the couple’s children, notably the 10-year-old Fraser (Robbie Norman), through whose eyes the events are seen.
Virtually overrun by kids and animals and seemingly immune from the cares of everyday world, life at the estate is enlivened by a constant stream of visitors; one day might bring a French aviator, “the Emperor of the Air” (Tcheky Karyo), landing his bi-plane to impress Fraser’s sister Elspeth (Kelly Macdonald), and another might welcome Moira’s hard-driving brother Morris (Malcolm McDowell), who brings along his French fiancee Heloise (Irene Jacob), a lovely, sophisticated young woman who turns every head in the house.
An accomplished businessman, Morris scorns Edward’s career dilettantism, which includes experimenting with flying machine and automobile prototypes and investigating the medicinal benefits of sphagnum moss. The story’s most potent thread is the allure Heloise has for the conservative, religiously strict Edward and for Fraser, who is utterly unschooled in sexual matters but becomes curious about the mysteries surrounding “sins of the flesh.”
Because of the intense feelings she summons up, Heloise provokes a major rift among the adults in the family, while for Fraser she provides the predictable but nonetheless plausible catalyst for the onset of adulthood as well as for the transformation of his idealized view of his father.
As Hudson was raised in circumstances not that dissimilar from those enjoyed by the people onscreen, it’s not surprising that a sympathetic affinity seeps through the genteel material. But it’s a feeling that helps more in evoking a sense of time and place than in dramatizing the events or deepening the characters.
The film does impart a nice impression of what it must have been like to live far from the main currents of society and politics, where any outsider is welcomed as a connection, however tangential, to the more vital rest of the world.
Fraser’s taste for jazz, and Louis Armstrong in particular, is impermissibly exotic and dangerous in the local context, and the fact that the estate is large enough to comprise a little universe unto itself suggests a melancholy apartness that deprives Fraser and his siblings as much as it blesses them.
But these small insights are the best “My Life So Far” can manage, and the minor incidents that fill the film’s brief running time will hardly make a deep impression on modern audiences.
Sequences come and go without much dramatic shaping or effect, and while the climactic showdown between Edward and Morris is as tart as the finale, in which Edward silently acknowledges his son’s new maturity, is effectively discreet, pic’s emotional power is decidedly muted.
The cast comports itself respectably, although no one really gets to developa character. Firth, as the father who’s a personal conformist but a professional kook, takes the best shot at it, but is somewhat constrained by the man’s numerous unappetizing traits. McDowell adds some welcome sting to the proceedings in his portrait of a man whose intolerance differs from that of the others, and Norman is all right as Fraser. Harris, Jacob and Mastrantonio bring what’s required to the principal femme roles but add little extra.
A strong visual style would have helped the film considerably but Bernard Lutic’s lensing, which seems to be fighting murky weather much of the time, is largely dull. Other production values are pro.