Hugh Jackman, Australian up-and-comer Zen McGrath and Oscar-winning 'The Father' filmmaker Florian Zeller explore a difficult family dynamic in this well-acted but uneven drama.
February 09, 2023
With a title that speaks of next generations, The Son is a film about second efforts, including off-screen. For writer/director Florian Zeller, it marks the French novelist and playwright's sophomore stint behind the camera, and notches the list of movies he's helmed based on his own stage works up to two as well. After dual Oscar-winner The Father, which earned Zeller and co-scribe Christopher Hampton the Best Adapted Screenplay award and Anthony Hopkins the much-deserved Best Actor prize, it's also his second feature with a family member in its title. And, it's his second largely confined to interior settings, focusing on mental illness, exploring complicated father-child relationships within that intimate domestic space and driven by intense dialogue spouted by a committed cast. Hopkins pops up once more in another psychodrama, too, as a dad again.
Within its frames, The Son follows New York lawyer Peter Miller (Hugh Jackman, Reminiscence) as he's happily starting over with his second wife Beth (Vanessa Kirby, Pieces of a Woman) and their newborn Theo, his second son. Here's the thing about second chances, though: sometimes your first shots can't simply be forgotten, no matter how eager you are to move on. Peter confronts this truth when his ex-spouse Kate (Laura Dern, Jurassic World Dominion) unexpectedly knocks at his door one day, distraught about learning that their 17-year-old Nicholas (Zen McGrath, Red Dog: True Blue) has been ditching school long-term. The teen hasn't been a contented presence around her home since his dad left, either, with depression setting in after such a big upheaval to his status quo. So, Peter and Kate agree to a parental rekindling, with Peter giving being an active dad to Nicholas — having him come to live with him, Beth and Theo, in fact — a second go.
Can lightning strike twice, for Zeller and for Peter? Once again co-writing with Hampton (who nabbed his first Oscar for adapting 1988's Dangerous Liaisons, and another nomination for his work on Atonement), The Son's creative force wants that to be a complicated question — and it is. In his layered narrative, Zeller keeps playing up doubles and playing with duality, including the varying ways that Peter treats his two boys, the push and pull of work and home as a new career opportunity arises, Nicholas' mood and attitude with two differing maternal figures, and the impact of Peter's own fraught relationship with his hard-nosed father (Hopkins, Armageddon Time). The latter is a dynamic that Peter doesn't have fond feelings about and is desperate not to reprise, but we all know what they say about history repeating. Accordingly, for The Son's increasingly exasperated patriarch, lightning striking twice is a double-edged sword.
In all of the above, from the moment that it begins with Peter, Beth and Theo at home, then talks about Nicholas, his troubles and mental state before introducing him, The Son is firmly aligned with Peter. Consequently, it's also stressed by a big struggle: truly comprehending Nicholas. The Father, whose shadow the often-clinical The Son will always be under — yes, the connection between Zeller's first two movies mimics the connection between the characters in his second flick — was the masterpiece it was by bringing its namesake's mindset to the screen. Zeller surrounded Hopkins' brilliant performance with immersive cinematography that plunged his audience into the confusion, disruption and distress of experiencing dementia. With The Son, teen anxiety, truancy and the scarred arms that indicate suicidal ideation are things to talk about, brood over and saddle with Chekhovian logic rather than attempt to deeply understand.
Set to a solemn score by Hans Zimmer (Prehistoric Planet), Zeller's latest film is filled with pain, hurt and devastation, clearly, but also distance from the person who's meant to be so pivotal that the picture is literally named after him. That said, the movie's moniker is revealing — because it's barely interested in fleshing out Nicholas as a person beyond being a son that Peter has to deal with due to the bonds of blood and the weight of regret. One of the feature's big emotional arcs charts Peter's growing realisation that being a parent is about genuinely seeing and accepting your child for who they are, and working to help them be the best version of themselves that they want to be instead of who you envision. It culminates in a stunning payoff sequence, but if only The Son paid more attention more often to who Nicholas is beyond his cutting anger, physical cuts, and Peter, Beth and Kate's reactions to him.
If only The Son also spent more time showing rather than telling — indeed, with its talk-heavy screenplay always betraying the story's stage origins, it devotes almost all of its efforts to telling. Again, even with cinematographer Ben Smithard lensing both here and for The Father, his current work for Zeller peers on rather than dives in. It's a testament to Jackman and McGrath's performances that The Son is as engaging as it is, however, and as dripping with raw emotion. Both Australian talents, one famous for decades at home and abroad, the other an impressive up-and-comer to watch, their duel of words, heartache, expectations and internalised dismay is finely tuned and gripping. Alongside Jackman's one-scene face-off with Hopkins, their still-stagey but compelling one-on-ones are the film's showpieces.
On the stage, The Father and The Son are the two parts of a thematic trilogy, completed by Zeller's The Mother — which, in its off-Broadway run in 2019, starred incomparable French icon Isabelle Huppert (an Oscar-nominee herself for 2016's Elle). Whether it too will make it to the movies is yet to be seen, but the two mums of The Son are sadly pushed aside. The always-great Dern and Kirby make the most they can of thin parts, though always deserving better, the two actors conveying a mother's and a stepmother's fears, anguish and hopes, respectively. They also share one of the film's key tussles: appreciating and unpacking its characters, Peter, Beth and Kate alike, and Nicholas especially, as more than their familial labels.
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