The prospect of a drama about an ageing parent with dementia hardly rings out “I must see this”. For sure, it’s a confronting subject for many of us because it can hit so close to home. But with two great actors in the lead, Academy Award Winners Anthony Hopkins and Olivia Colman, you already have an inkling that this is going to be an actors masterclass and it certainly is, but so is the writing.
Anthony (played by Anthony Hopkins) lives in a flat in London. Anthony is stubborn, combative and suffers from bursting out off hand and abrupt speeches. He rejects caretakers much to the anxiety of his daughter Anne (Olivia Colman). Anne can see that her father is slipping away and Anthony’s behavior only serves to upset her, her husband Paul (Rufus Sewell) and anyone else who crosses the old man’s path. But Anthony’s confusion only deepens as time to him no longer seems to make sense, he can’t keep track of his location, his ceases to recognize the people around him and yet he insists he can take care of himself. Slowly, Anthony’s world starts breaking down as he slips further into dementia.
Anthony goes through caregivers so quickly that Anne is always facing the challenge of finding a new one. When Anne returns one day, she introduces a newly found caregiver named Laura (played by Imogen Poots), who is so youthful and vibrant that she lifts Anthony’s spirit, to the point that he flirts with her and pours some whiskeys. For Anthony she also reminds him of Anne’s sister Lucy, who he often mistaken’s Laura for. But there’s a hush in the air every time Lucy’s name is mentioned.
“The Father”, plays into the “I see ghosts” and living an alternate reality experience of dementia. Like in an early sequence that sees Anthony strolling into the living room and encounters a man sitting there calmly, reading the newspaper. It’s his daughter’s husband (played by Mark Gatiss); they all live together in the house. Moments later, the daughter returns, but it’s a different woman from before (now played by Olivia Williams), who announces that she’s bought a chicken to cook for dinner. Anthony, stunned by this shift in reality, tries to adjust and makes a reference to the husband, as she looks at Anthony with a blank stare. There is no husband, because was divorced five years ago and there’s no chicken, either. If the plotline doesn’t sound easy to follow, then your right because it isn’t and it’s not meant to be.
Writer and director Florian Zeller wants our minds to feel as confused as Anthony’s and Zeller doesn’t take this dilemma on in a straightforward way. Instead the audience witnesses Anthony’s experiences in pieces. But as us, the audience we are also putting together the puzzle of Anthony’s life as they fall apart for him. Zeller keeps scrambling up the identities of the people close to him, which allows the director to play neat tricks with his characters. Because like us, Anthony believes what he sees. So which scenario is real and which ones have Anthony hallucinated? We can’t quite tell, but in each case what we’re seeing feels real and that’s just one of many, of the film’s ingenious approaches.
Anthony feels like he is home, but he’s not really home and everything kind of blurs together. What makes “The Father” so unnerving is how quietly Zeller plays it. Every change in Anthony’s life comes in without announcing itself and those changes further disorients Anthony’s reality. We can see through Hopkins that Anthony is driven by fear, a fear leads to him lashing out and he’s fighting to assert any control he can on a world that he no longer understands.
“The Father” is based on the French writer, director and novelist Florian Zeller’s stage play. Zeller films “The Father” as if he were back at his stage play, in keeping it to one location with no more than two actors on the screen at once and only six actors on his entire casting sheet. It’s hard to not imagine that the roots of Zeller’s play and film have come from his personal life experiences with a family member.
Zeller explores the loss through thoughtful direction, careful storytelling and yet another incredible performance from the great Anthony Hopkins. Sure, the film is overwhelmingly sad, but it’s never exploitative as its works tirelessly to empathize with a man who has become detached from his reality. It’s deeply empathetic and thoroughly moving, “The Father” refuses to offer an easy way out in favor of embracing and showcasing the difficult truths behind the disease. It’s a heartbreaking and sorrowful film because that’s the reality of the situation. Zeller’s film is beautiful in how unflinching it is and how it shows a deep love for Anthony even when he’s at his worst or even when he’s mostly gone.
Anthony Hopkins who plays the patriarch that loses his footing, will break your heart. Zeller allows Hopkins to fill up the screen with frustration as his world starts to crumble. Anthony Hopkins best work since the Amazon Prime original film “King Lear” from 2018 and last years Netflix original “The Two Popes”. Hopkins was stiffed last year at the Oscars for “The Two Popes”, but I hope we will likely see him being seated at the 2020 Oscars.
He’s surrounded by an excellent cast with Academy Award winner Olivia Colman’s (“The Favourite”) presence proving essential. The story belongs to Anthony, but Colman gives us so much in her performance as Anne and showing us how her father’s deterioration wears on her and how she tries to put on a brave face through it all. You can also tell so much about Anne’s life just through the little moments Colman gives us like her deflation every time Anthony compares her to her sister, or the way Anne lights up at a compliment from her father.
What makes this such a rich performance is how Colman allows us to see Anne not just in relation to her father’s dementia, but of their relationship. To say so much without the use of flashbacks or heavy exposition is remarkable on Zeller’s part. Both Hopkins and Olivia Colman deliver two of the finest performances of 2020 in Zeller’s masterful and heartbreaking film.
The film gives us small clues to get our bearings and each time we do or think we do, it pulls the rug out again. Zeller’s film does something that few movies about mental deterioration haven’t brought off in quite this way, or this fully. It places us in the mind of someone losing his mind and at times, Zeller seems to be putting us in an episode of the “Twilight Zone” or at other times feeling like Jack Torrance losing his mind, from Stephen King’s “The Shining”.
The skill and craft of “The Father” is that Zeller understands that to properly view the world from Anthony’s perspective is to purposefully confuse the audience based on facts we already have. It’s an intimate portrait of a person attempting to adapt to his changing world and “The Father” officially puts Zeller on a list of directors to watch, while the film is one of the best this year.
GRADE: ★★★★1/2☆ (4.5 out of 5)