With remarkable performances from Anthony Hopkins and Olivia Colman and a purposefully puzzle-like approach, this drama about dementia leaves a lasting imprint.
Forgetting, fixating, flailing, fraying: that's The Father. Anthony's (Anthony Hopkins, Westworld) life is unravelling, with his daughter Anne (Olivia Colman, The Crown) springing the sudden news that she's about to move to Paris, and now insistent that he needs a new carer to replace the last home helper he's just scared off. He also can't find his watch, and time seems to jump suddenly. On some days, he has just trundled out of bed to greet the morning when Anne advises that dinner, not breakfast, is being served. When he brings up her French relocation again, she frostily and dismissively denies any knowledge. Sometimes another man (Mark Gatiss, Dracula) stalks around Anthony's London apartment, calling himself Anne's husband. Sometimes the flat isn't his own at all and, on occasion, both Anne (Olivia Williams, Victoria and Abdul) and her partner (Rufus Sewell, Judy) look completely different. Intermittently, Anthony either charms or spits cruel words at Laura (Imogen Poots, Black Christmas), the latest aide hired to oversee his days. She reminds him of another daughter, one he's sure he had — and preferred — but hasn't heard from for years. When he mentions his other offspring, however, everyone else goes silent. More than once, Anthony suspects that someone has pilfered his beloved timepiece, which just keeps disappearing.
Largely, The Father remains housebound. For the bulk of its 97 minutes, it focuses on the cardigan-wearing Anthony as he roams around the space he calls home. But this is a chaotic film, despite its visual polish, and that mess, confusion and upheaval is entirely by design. All the shifting and changing — big and small details alike, and faces and places, too — speak to the reason Anne keeps telling Anthony they need another set of hands around the house. His memory isn't what it used to be. In fact, it's getting much worse than that. Anthony knows that there's something funny going on, which is how he describes it when his sense of what's happening twists and morphs without warning, and The Father's audience are being immersed in that truth. Anthony has dementia, with conveying precisely how that feels for him the main aim of this six-time Oscar-nominated stage-to-screen adaptation, which novelist and playwright turned first-time director Florian Zeller has helmed based on Le Père, his own play.
In a looping, winding, structurally savvy screenplay by Zeller and Christopher Hampton (an Academy Award-winner for Dangerous Liaisons) that plays out like a puzzle, disorientation is the key tool. Sometimes the change in details is subtle, as one well-appointed, high-ceilinged abode with views of the street below gives way to another. At other times, the contrast is sharp and jarring, and Anthony reacts accordingly. The Father does an extraordinary job of placing its viewers in the octogenarian's head, making them endure the same jolts and jumps, and share the same disarray and loss. And make no mistake: to feel as though your grip on what's real and right in front of you is slipping is something to be mourned. Also superbly handled in the script, and in Hopkins' powerhouse performance, is the fact that Anthony is caught between two extremes. Not only to himself, but to Anne, Laura and that man that's sometimes present, he often seems enough like his old self that little appears wrong. That sensation can linger, but it can also pass in an instant — just as he can segue from fact to fantasy in the blink of an eye as he spins stories and reflects upon memories, and from merriment to menace in his mood as well.
Bearing witness to Anthony's experience doesn't just inspire horror in an empathetic fashion. Feeling for anyone in such circumstances is an innate reaction, so it still does just that, but it also evokes a visceral response. Ageing is something that we all aspire to, given that the alternative is dying young — and the physical and mental deterioration that comes with the passing years is one of life's universal fears. The Father reflects this not only by putting its audience in Anthony's shoes, but also by observing how both of its two main characters handle this simultaneously evolving and devolving situation. While Anne bears the weight of her father's decline in a dissimilar way, obviously, her life has been equally affected. Balance is one of The Father's masterstrokes, getting its viewers thinking of their own futures as well as of those they love. No one can escape this subject matter, after all, and no one can evade the film's devastating and heartbreaking gaze, either.
A titan of cinema for decades — with 2021 marking 30 years since he frightened his way into celluloid history as Hannibal Lecter — Hopkins is similarly unavoidable. He's an actor with physical presence, inescapable command, that booming voice and a way of demanding that every set of eyes peers his way, and his well-established talents and traits are all on offer in The Father. As Anthony's condition worsens, he also displays remarkable fragility and vulnerability. Aided by Ben Smithard's (Downton Abbey) incisive cinematography, he can tower over everyone in the room and then shrink into its corners. In one late shot — the movie's most haunting — he's infantilised by the scenario and the camerawork in tandem, and it's utterly shattering. In the film as a whole and in Hopkins' performance, sentiment has no place. Indeed, The Father and its star are ruthless in conveying Anthony's inner state and overall journey.
The more recent Oscar-winner among cast (and a nominee this year again, alongside Hopkins), Colman is remarkable in a different manner. Her version of Anne is weary, plagued by sorrow and trying to soldier on all at once, and hers is the epitome of a layered portrayal. She weathers Hopkins' charisma, savagery and uncertainty, but she's unselfish in every scene. This is a generous film all-round, even in its darkest moments. As overwhelming as The Father can be as it wades through Anthony and Anne's lives, its unflinching and unsparing approach is anchored in kindness and compassion — because to truly see something as tough as this is to give it the attention and focus it deserves.