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MY LIFE SO FAR

Review by Michael Jacobson

Stars:  Colin Firth, Rosemary Harris, Irene Jacobs, Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio, Malcolm McDowell
Director:  Hugh Hudson
Audio:  Dolby Digital 5.1
Video:  Widescreen 1.85:1 Anamorphic Transfer
Studio:  Miramax
Features:  None
Length:  95 Minutes
Release Date:  January 25, 2000

Film ***1/2

My Life So Far begins when a three year old kid named Fraser, in protest of his grandmother making him take a nap on a beautiful summer day, crawls out of the window of his family’s Scottish castle, and heads precariously toward the attic, several stories up, with no fear.  I liked him immediately.  The attic seemed like a good place to go, because his father (Firth) had always told him the devil lurked there.  “To this day,” he mentions in the narration, “I’m still afraid of the word ‘lurked’”.

The remainder of the movie takes place during a summer seven years later, and is a story told without a lot of plot, but with such terrific, charming characters and a great sense of insight into the magic of childhood innocence, where everything around seemed like a wonder to be marveled or an adventure to be experienced.  It’s kind of a modern period piece, taking place in the 1920’s, but in a setting where time seems to have almost stood still.  The old Scottish castle is a historical marvel, obviously centuries old, and still housing a large family.  There is nothing but calm, serenity, and scenic beauty as far as the eye can see.  But the film also boasts a higher energy level than many period movies.  It maintains a good pace without faltering, and most definitely never gets boring.

If Fraser’s world is a paradise, and indeed, he even tells his father that heaven must be like it, so that dying would not seem like dying at all, then one of the central themes of the film is temptation in paradise.  Here is a place where all is good and harmonious, until Fraser’s eccentric uncle (McDowell) brings home a new fiancée, a beautiful French cellist named Heloise (Jacob) who is less than half his age.  She is the embodiment of sweetness, so if you want to compare this tale to the story of Eden, she could not be considered the serpent, but rather, the apple.  She is no more to blame for the behavior she inspires in both Fraser and his dad than was the fruit to blame for being attractive and mysterious.

In a strange way, she almost instantly creates a rivalry between father and son, despite the fact that the father is married, the son is just a child, and she’s engaged, anyway.  Fraser loves her not merely because she’s a beauty, but because she doesn’t treat him like a little kid.  When he talks, she listens.  This doesn’t sit well with his father, who instantly insists that he stop being a pest.  The problem is, naturally, that a soon-to-be aunt can have an innocent relationship with her new nephew, where they laugh, play, and share moments like friends.  It can’t quite exist in the same way with his married father.  The fact that his relationship with the uncle is a bit strained anyway proves further fodder for complications.  And it should be noted that the father is a good man—he’s no lecher.  He’s the kind of charming character so caught up in his own world that he spends his energies inventing an airplane, despite the fact that it has already been invented and in use for some time.  He wasn’t expecting a passion like this to awaken within him,  and in some ways, he’s more lost in what to do about it than his son.

In the meantime, Fraser’s newfound curiosity sends him at long last into the forbidden attic, where he finds no devil, but a treasure trove of adult-themed books, paintings, and manuals that belonged to his grandfather.  And young Fraser is more than ready to begin his education.  He finds a passage on prostitution in one of the books, for example.  “I read it three times,” he remarks.  “It was one of the most interesting things I ever read.”  Later on, in one of the most laugh-inducing scenes of the year, he sort of reveals at an inopportune moment that despite his reading, he still doesn’t quite grasp the nature of what prostitution is.  Then again, maybe he understands a little too well.  Your call.

It’s wonderful to see a film like this, than can explore the subject of a young boy’s newly discovered sexual curiosity, and present it in a way that keeps it sweet, innocent, and tasteful.  After all, it is a rite of passage that we’ve all had to go through at one point in our youths.  This picture comes the closest to getting it right.  At least for me, it was the most reminiscent of my own experiences, as much as I’d like to believe it was closer to American Pie.  The final shot of the movie is one that’s likely to make you chuckle out loud, then continue smiling as it takes you back to a time in your own life when you both eagerly anticipated and feared the inevitable passage into adulthood at the same time.

Video ***1/2

This is another quality anamorphic transfer from the Disney studios.  As usual, the picture offers enormous clarity and sharpness, making excellent use of color and detail even in deep focus.  You can see a bookshelf in the background, but it’s not just a piece of hazy scenery.  You can clearly see each and every book spine, sharply rendered and separate from the others.  The color scheme is wide and beautiful, with natural looking tones, gorgeous lighting, and no evidence of bleeding or compression to be found.  The only complaint is the surprising amount of dirt and nicks on the print—surprising because of how new the film is.  It’s not a problem, and certainly not a detraction from the overall beauty of the transfer, but it is noticeable, and as such, I can’t in good conscience give this image a full 4 star rating. 

Audio ***

The 5.1 soundtrack, though not particularly busy, is one of the best rendered I’ve heard from a period film, thanks to a dynamic, symphonic score by Howard Blake, that includes bits of Beethoven.  Right from the opening credits, it almost sounds like you’re listening to an orchestral concert, thanks to the spread of the music across all channels.  It certainly heightened the overall enjoyment of viewing the film.  And thankfully, Malcolm McDowell never pops on screen to rave about “lovely, lovely Ludwig Van”.  ;-)

Features (zero stars)

Nothing.

Summary:

My Life So Far is a charming, delightful, beautifully photographed and wonderfully acted period piece with richly drawn characters and a terrific, humorous sense of honesty about it.  It’s less about plot and more about the people of the story, but it’s so well-constructed and conceived that it’s both compelling and absorbing, and thoroughly entertaining from beginning to end.