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My Life So Far

Review by Elias Savada
Posted 30 July 1999

  Directed by Hugh Hudson.

Starring Colin Firth,
Rosemary Harris, Irene Jacob,
Tcheky Karyo, Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio,
Robbie Norman, Kelly MacDonald,
and Malcolm McDowell.

Screenplay by Simon Donald,
based on the book "Son of Adam"
by Sir Denis Forman.

British director Hugh Hudson, best known for his award-winning 1981 freshman feature Chariots of Fire, the compelling tale of exhilarating personal victory at the 1924 Olympics, returns to the pre- and post-Depression decades with a smaller, intimate effort worthy of your time (a brisk 90-minutes) and dollars, but which, unfortunately, may get lost in the continuing summer onslaught of mega-films. Hudson, whose last fictional effort bombed here in the States over a decade ago (Lost Angels, featuring Beastie Boys’ Adam Horovitz), has shaped an intimate world of an eccentric Scottish family, based on the precocious red-headed childhood memoirs of Royal Opera House director Sir Denis Forman.

Stunningly bucolic Argyll, Scotland is Never Never Land to the large family of ten-year-old Fraser Pettigrew and his doting parents Edward and Moira to the maternal estate of Kiloran House. Father, ever so plain, but filled with a stern yet childish nature by Colin Firth (the fickle foil of the Bard and his lady love in Shakespeare in Love), spends his time creating inventions of dubious merits. He is the "kind fool," reluctantly accommodated by his six children and his staid, indulgent wife (American Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio, a.k.a. Maid Marian opposite Kevin Costner in Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves). Fraser, played by newcomer Robbie Norman, is a terrifyingly adventuresome child (as an infant he nonchalantly ventured out one afternoon for a crawl -- along the steep ledge high above his terrified clan), who absorbs life with wide-eyed eagerness, much like the sphagnum moss that envelopes the area (and which soaked up the blood of the Allied wounded in World War I). The moss provides a small cottage industry for the family, until Moira’s iron-fisted mother, Gamma Macintosh (Rosemary Harris), and selfish Uncle Morris (Malcolm McDowell) arrive from London with grand plans for the property, to the horrifying dismay of the current inhabitants.

As Edward’s resourceful dabbling with the local plant life brings central heating to the mansion, his romantic fires are stoked by the arrival of Heloise (Irene Jacob), Morris’s fiancée, a striking young French cellist who also plucks at the heartstrings of the sexually curious Fraser. Edward’s attention to his family is strained by his repressed infatuation with the 24-year-old mademoiselle, who instead favors the company of the clever youngster, in a seemingly harmless older-sister manner.

Left alone by a father pre-occupied with his own failings, Fraser learns of the pleasures of the flesh by thumbing through his late grandfather’s library and happening upon explicit Greek texts. This extracurricular reading plays off amusingly at a pre-nuptial dinner, joined by some cross-dressing guests and a wine-guzzling reverend, with Fraser’s unabashed comments about the financial viability of prostitutes raising money for the poor. Still later, a peaceful Halloween party erupts into a melee when Fraser is accused of feeling up a friend’s sister. Wet dreams of Heloise follow for the ever-confused lad, and an even more ill-at-ease father who suggests a cold plunge in the river as a solution to his son’s condition.

My Life So Far fills its short time very well. The cast carries their roles exceedingly well for such a small film, built on imperfect characters and strained relations. Even smaller roles, such as Tcheky Karyo as a daredevil aviator who lands at the estate in search of repairs, Kelly MacDonald as Fraser’s sister smitten in love by the flyer, and Freddie Jones is the red-faced Reverend Finlayson, register refreshingly.

The film lingers like a good after-dinner mint, a repast sumptuously capturing the strong picturesque landscape of the Scottish highlands (where Hudson also filmed his Greystoke: The Legend of Tarzan) by cinematographer Bernard Lutic, formerly aboard with Hudson on their 1985 disaster, Revolution. Innocence lays revealed before you and you relish it in all its repressed glory, much like how Fraser sneaks off to enjoy old recordings of Louis Armstrong (his classically-trained father brow-beating his son with the opinion that "Beethoven is God talking in his sleep; jazz is the devil"). We all have family secrets and it’s nice to see that someone of Hugh Hudson’s stature can show them an apt place on the cinema’s mantle.

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