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DVD Review: A Voyage Round My Father

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A Voyage Round My Father is John Mortimer’s autobiographical play turned made-for-television movie in which nothing—and everything—happens. The story itself bounced back and forth—first as a radio play, then a stage play, a TV movie (this production, 1982), and a stage revival.

It is the tale of a family—father, mother, son—that begins when the son is a young boy. The father (Clifford Mortimer, portrayed by Laurence Olivier) is a contrary person, often disagreeable, cantankerous, and stubborn. In fact, he is so stubborn that when he is blinded, he will not acknowledge it, and the family never refers to his blindness. The son, John, is sent off to a school run by a peculiar headmaster (Michael Aldridge), but take heart, there are no negative consequences or traumatizing events.

Clifford Mortimer is a barrister, and blindness does not end his career. His wife assists him, going to trials, taking notes, and writing letters. His practice is divorce law, and in letters to his son he includes salacious details of his cases. The son grows up, thinks about writing, works as an assistant director, becomes a lawyer, marries a divorcée with children, becomes a playwright, and it appears they all live together in the family home (A Voyage Round My Father was filmed at the Mortimer family’s estate in Oxfordshire, an English country house surrounded by gardens).

Alan Bates appears as John Mortimer, and the casting is awry. Bates was a bit long in the tooth in 1982, especially for scenes in which John Mortimer is a young adult (Bates was 48). Having a middle-aged man act the part of a young man is distracting and confusing. Also unsettling were scenes that follow previous scenes by many years, but we have no clue how many. It’s obvious when a scene shows John as a young boy, and he’s Alan Bates in the next scene. Since this is a period piece, it would be good to know what period we’re in at any given time. This is actually relevant to the son only; we’re watching and thinking, “Is he a 50-year-old man who’s just become a law clerk and is thinking about getting married? Or is he a 50-ish man playing a fellow in his early 20s?” In one scene, a couple has two children. In the next there are more, hinting (by the age of the children) that years have passed, but how many?

A Voyage Round My Father takes place in the mid-20th century; World War II is being fought somewhere off-screen. The focus is on the relationship between father and son; other characters are mere satellites. Father is eccentric and opinionated; son seems to live in his shadow, not speaking much at all (when he does, he seems to be quoting dad). The son becomes a lawyer because it would please his father; throughout his adult life, he is seen with his family mostly, as though he didn’t exist outside their home. There is an oddness to the whole thing; although there is an occasional edginess between father and daughter-in-law, there is no real conflict and the movie is engaging only in rare moments.

This peculiar film is a character study of the father, whom we never get to know because he is so closed. I’d once read a review of the London production of the stage play in which the reviewer wrote that there was a reason it is called A Voyage Round My Father and not A Voyage into My Father. This is an insightful interpretation; the father, when not in court, was reclusive. When forced to interact with people, he used words to keep them at bay, always discouraging closeness or familiarity.

Although the plot, in its most basic form, is “a family lived then someone died,” the film is entertaining because the characters are interesting and unpredictable. A Voyage Round My Father is a loving memory, a son’s farewell to his father.

Extras included on the DVD are biographies of John Mortimer, Alan Bates, and Laurence Oliver. Look for it on April 27.

Bottom Line: Would I buy/rent A Voyage Round My Father? Yes, rent. I liked it, but one viewing was enough.

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