Weekly Wire
Memphis Flyer Hearts in the Highlands

'My Life So Far' has simple pleasures.

By Hadley Hury

NOVEMBER 29, 1999:  My Life So Far is a sweet-natured entertainment about a series of skirmishes in the Scottish Highlands during the 1920s, which take place within a family and in which the various factions include love, jealousy, nature, Wordsworth, infidelity, American jazz, Calvinism, and puberty. Based on the autobiography of British TV executive and Royal Opera board chairman Sir Dennis Forman, the film is directed by Hugh Hudson at a leisurely pace and with an integrity of tone that seems quietly to insist that it is in the small details that the rich pageant of life unfolds from era to era. The film’s modesty and simplicity are deceptive; quite a lot happens, actually, and the poignancy of its humor and the ideas and emotions it evokes tend to linger.

The story is narrated by 10-year-old Fraser Pettigrew (Robert Norman); he describes life at his family’s beautiful old estate near Argyll and his own awakening to the intricate maze that leads from childhood to adolescence. One of the stars of the film is, of course, the Scottish landscape, its unique mosaic of lush vegetation, silver lakes, and severely majestic mountains enlivened by the dramatic interplay of northern light and shadow. Fraser’s childhood is essentially a very happy realm composed of his parents, his widowed grandmother (brought to life by the wonderful Rosemary Harris), four siblings, servants, laborers, and assorted animals.

Colin Firth plays Fraser’s father, Edward, a rustic Renaissance man who manufactures soap and surgical dressings from the local sphagnum moss, teaches his sons to intone Beethoven for a better sense of rhythm in their fly-fishing, and invents underground chimneys of dubious success. The young father loves his wife (Elizabeth Mastrantonio) and children. He is handsome and dashing, his eccentricities joyful; his view of life is a commingled perspective of transcendental Romanticism and muscular Christianity. This vital mixture turns volatile when his brother-in-law, Uncle Morris (Malcolm McDowell), arrives with his much younger fiancée, Eloise, a dazzling young Frenchwoman (Irene Jacob). Morris, a practical, world-weary, millionaire businessman, and Edward are the antithesis of one another in intellect, philosophy, and spirit. Eloise becomes the inadvertent agent by which their controlled enmity smolders into open conflagration. Mastrantonio, whose film career has been marked by some unfortunate casting, failed projects, and unmemorable performances, does some of her best work to date. As the contented wife and mother whose idyll becomes clouded, she manages to evince subtle shades of emotion in a performance built with assured technique and depth of understanding. As “Gamma,” Harris, as always, is luminous; the queen mother of the household, she rules with dignity, affection, and quicksilver humor that is all the more impish for its discreet deployment. McDowell is also effective -- brusque, unsympathetic, but giving Uncle Morris a humanizing touch of emotional need that helps balance the eventual showdown between him and Edward.

Two aspects of Fraser’s particular story make this rites de passage from innocence to understanding more compelling than many of the genre -- the consistency of its wryly humorous perspective and the fact that Fraser is such an observant and articulate boy. He reminds us of the feverish need of children this age to put the disparate pieces of life’s puzzle together, the giddy bafflement, alternately exciting and dismaying, of trying to connect the dots. Although this need continues, of course, throughout our adult lives, it is rarely more defining than in our earliest adolescence. Fraser is educated, smart, and inquisitive, and My Life So Far crackles with his narrated quest to grasp new information and to make sense of what he has enthusiastically collected already -- a storehouse of words, ideas, music, images, overheard conversation, dreams. Into the bargain, he must attend to an altogether new language, the inchoate whisperings of his body. Robert Norman, whose film debut this is, is perfect casting: straightforward, his round freckled face open with intelligent questions, all no nonsense and let’s-get-on-with-it. His demeanor helps sustain the tale’s buoyancy despite its darker passages; My Life So Far deals with the loss of innocence but it does so without bitter irony and with the hope of some degree of redemption. Beautiful to look at, large-hearted, and ruefully funny, My Life So Far is a small film in the best sense of the word.

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