Anthony (played by Anthony Hopkins) is a proud man. He lives alone in his gorgeous London flat and has no desire to give up the life he’s become accustomed to. His patient daughter Anne (Olivia Colman) tries to look after him, even as he rejects every carer she hires and insists that everything is OK. But it’s not. Anthony has become overwhelmed with the realities of aging, including a slow slide into dementia. The seeming contented peace of his twilight years has become a disorienting labyrinth of confusion that slowly traps him and the woman trying to take care of him.
Based on his own play, French writer Florian Zeller makes his directorial debut with The Father. A huge hit at home and basically everywhere else it’s been performed worldwide, Le Père is essentially the theatrical equivalent of Oscar bait. Name a production and the chances are that it won a whole lot of awards, from Broadway to the West End and beyond. Clearly, Sony Pictures Classics have similar hopes for the film adaptation, which is receiving its most lavish Oscar season campaigning, particularly for its two leads. Adapting plays to the big screen is no mean feat, and many a seasoned director has stumbled when trying to translate the tension of a one-room story into a cinematic narrative. Zeller certainly hasn’t made it easy for himself with his first-ever film, especially since his own work was declared by The Times to be ‘one of the best plays of the decade.’
The Father seems so conventional in its opening scenes. A harried Anne goes to chastise her father for his sacking of yet another care worker, before breaking the news to him that she’s moving to Paris to be with her new partner. You think you know where the film is going, then all of a sudden, you’re as lost as Anthony is. Small details of his opulent flat suddenly shift. But wait, is it actually his flat or Anne’s? Rooms seem to shift locations. Things disappear from shelves. One day, there’s a man in the flat who claims to be Anne’s husband, but then he disappears, to be replaced by a totally different man who’s meant to be her husband. Eventually, Anne herself suddenly becomes a different woman (played, fittingly, by another Olivia: Olivia Williams.) The expected ‘dementia drama’ we’ve dishearteningly seen so many times before is flipped on its head. Now, it’s almost trippy, a surreal descent into what many consider to be the worst thing that could ever happen to them.
Zeller makes excellent use of this limited space(s), turning this enviably beautiful apartment into its own kind of familiar hell. The viewer feels grounded in the familiarities of this space — clearly the home of a monied sort with impeccable artistic tastes — right up until it’s all of a sudden different. You, like Anthony, begin to second-guess yourself. Soon, the hallways feel smaller, the doors not where they once were. You instinctively trust what the director shows you but then he throws another alternate reality at the wall. Which one is real? Does it even matter?
There are many pop culture narratives surrounding dementia, and we’ve come to expect a familiar series of story and character beats. We saw this with another recent release, Viggo Mortensen’s Falling, a veritable assembly line of those cliches that, as many of these stories like to do, portrayed an Alzheimer’s patient as a ranting bigot whose abuses should be swallowed whole as some display of noble suffering. Such patients often become lessons to be learned, or almost cozy reminders to appreciate life while you can. Dementia does not glow. It’s cruel and agonizing and often grotesque to watch unfold. For The Father, it is an inescapable cycle of confusion that creates a kind of personal hell. In many ways, this feels like a film designed to combat so many of those lazier and more trite narratives.
We see Anthony as a noble man, someone used to getting his own way and getting everyone else out of his way, including his ceaselessly patient daughter. There’s a sharpness to the way he talks to her, perhaps a throwback to his youthful cruelty and fatherly critiques. He’s still capable of turning on the charm but, even without the audience having seen him in his younger days, we know how much of his former self has become diminished by illness. Hopkins hasn’t had a role this good in years, and he rises to the occasion with aplomb and devastating emotional force. Having spent a couple of decades coasting on being a national treasure — hello, that one Transformers movie where he has a robot butler — one would expect Hopkins to have lost some of that potency that made him so magnetic, but not so. There’s a grandness to his presence, even when he’s at his most confused, dominant in ways good and bad. His cruelty — both due to his condition and his general personality — lands with a punch, but so does the genuine confusion in his eyes when Anne’s husband (or is it?) becomes irritated with him. A role like this can often seem like an acting exercise or series of Oscar clips, but Hopkins’s work here is wholly organic, and often devastating. It’s affecting without ever descending into saccharine dishonesty or gawking voyeurism.
Colman is also excellent as Anne, a loving woman all too used to putting herself second. She is the primary witness to the loss of her father but also ends up being the primary target of his frustrations. We see the exhaustion etched onto her face as she tries to cloak her anger and pain in optimistic cheer. There are moments when her eyes flicker with something that feels like relief when Anthony is seemingly lucid for a few minutes. The Father is generous to Anne in giving her room to be more than just the caregiver, but it never sacrifices Anthony’s perspective for an easier story. There’s a reason most of these dementia-focused narratives aren’t from the point-of-view of the sufferer.
I understand that The Father is a film that a lot of people will want to avoid. How do you glowingly recommend something that’s so difficult to watch and tackles a very real illness that has devastated countless lives? You know that stories like this can’t and won’t end well. What’s the happy-ever-after for a disease that robs you of your very being? Hell, writing this review was hard enough because it meant revisiting particular scenes and sobbing my heart out for a few minutes before I could go on. Still, for those who can take it — and I get that right now this may not be at the top of anyone’s must-watch list — The Father is the best possible example of how a story like this can and should be told. Zeller has done an excellent job with his own play, turning the great and terrible unknown into a painfully real story of unreliability and degradation. Narratives like this are seldom told subtly — what’s subtle about dementia? — but The Father’s nuances and cannily told perspectives are keenly observed in ways that stories like this need to be.
The Father will be released in New York City and Los Angeles on 26 February, before expanding on 12 March. It will be available on VOD on 26 March.
Epidemiologists do not think it’s safe yet to go to theaters even with social distancing and safety measures in place. This review of a theatrical release is not an endorsement or suggestion otherwise. This film was reviewed via a screening link.
Header Image Source: Sony Pictures Classics