Those of us who have watched the mind of a loved one slip away into oblivion with age will be uniquely touched by “The Father.” The lucky ones who have not had such an experience will still be struck by the film, if only for its marvelous acting and psychological thrill. Directed by Florian Zeller (in his feature film-directing debut) and based on his play of the same name, “The Father” is a convoluted tale of dementia.
Anthony Hopkins (“The Silence of the Lambs”) stars as Anthony, the aging father of Anne (Olivia Colman, “The Favourite”). The audience is introduced to Anthony after he supposedly had a row with his caregiver — over what, we don’t know, but we quickly understand that Anthony is temperamental and afraid of change. Things begin to devolve when new characters arrive, claiming to be familiar faces but seemingly foreign to Anthony.
Throughout the film, characters appear and disappear, often to reappear played by different actors. The audience is never sure of which story is “real,” or which actor is the “real” character; in this way, we are just as deluded as Anthony. Although these shifts are upsetting to Anthony, they are often great filmmaking choices from the viewer’s perspective. As different actors slip into the same role and the set’s decor undergoes a sudden stylistic overhaul, the viewer is spellbound.
Zeller has maintained the theatricality in this work. Any viewer who has seen a play will be able to transpose the action on-screen onto an imaginary stage. This is a wonderful example of script-turned-screenplay, filmed almost entirely within one apartment and relying on dialogue and the actors’ movement to tell the story. The camera does not intrude and does not try to usurp storytelling duties.
Cinematographer Ben Smithard’s (“Downton Abbey”) work is elegant. Smithard frames each shot to set the “stage” for the actors, highlighting the set design for the viewer’s benefit as we try to track the changes. Some of these set shots happen when the actors are away, giving us a moment of uneasy quiet to study Anthony’s home. By proxy, we are given a chance to study Anthony’s mind.
Hopkins’s performance dominates the film. Without revealing any details about a scene near the film’s conclusion, in which Hopkins captures the terror and sorrow of aging alone, I can offer a memory of my own that entails the same emotional heft. In the final year of my grandfather’s life, I’d visit him regularly in his nursing home, where he’d invariably tell me stories I’d heard a hundred times before. His room opened onto a common room, where the drone of daytime television mingled with the beeping of monitors and the chatter of nurses. But one heartbreaking sound rose above the din.
In a hospital bed parked in the hall, a small old woman absentmindedly cried out for hours: “Mama!” Though her cries became a fixture of the sonic landscape of my visits to my grandfather, her plea was never lost in the noise. There was far too much fear and pain in that single word, repeated ad infinitum, to let it slip below the surface. Hopkins, working with a much larger vocabulary, still conveys that distressing terror. Few actors can capture such authentic emotion.
Colman and Hopkins have a strong dramatic relationship. Mark Gatiss (“Sherlock”) plays Anne’s wily “husband,” but so does Rufus Sewell (“Judy”) who arguably gives a more compelling performance. That said, Gatiss is a master of subtext and serves a key role in helping the viewer (re)construct the narrative once the film ends. Though she is not the only Anne, Colman is the film’s dramatic foundation, setting the tone against which Hopkins and Sewell play. Without Colman, “The Father” would be nothing more than a bunch of frustrated men.
Nominated for an Academy Award for Best Picture, “The Father” is up against tough competition. Though it has a theatrical charm which plays to Hollywood’s dramatic self-image, the story may not hold up to more cinematic films like “Minari” and “Nomadland.”
“The Father” is also nominated for Best Actor (Hopkins), Best Supporting Actress (Colman), Editing, Production Design and Adapted Screenplay. I think the most likely wins are in the latter two categories, as both show an adept understanding of the complementary differences between film and theatre. The competition is steep for Hopkins and Colman.
Whether or not it is deemed by the Academy to be 2020’s Best Picture, “The Father” offers something to every viewer. Rich with emotion and bound to rile up memories of aged relatives, Hopkins’s embodiment of dementia is startling. Filmed with attention to the story’s roots on stage, Zeller and Smithard have produced an adaption that complements, rather than detracts from, the original work.
“The Father” has the makings of an instant classic, but I guess it’s up to us to usher it into the canon.
Daily Arts Writer Ross London can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.