The Father Fri, 11 Jun 2021 00:00:00 +0100-This Oscar-winning drama is the first film about dementia to make the viewer an active participant in the sufferer's deterioration.
The Father feels more like a horror film than a drama. Eighty-year-old Anthony (Anthony Hopkins, who won the Academy Award for Best Actor for this role) lives in a tasteful London flat, enjoys listening to opera and seems rational, if a little cantankerous.
His daughter, Anne (Olivia Colman), drops by to tell him that she is moving to France with a man, and perhaps it might be time to… “Time to what?” Anthony growls. “Come on, Anne. Finish that sentence.”
Anne is clearly suggesting that Anthony move into a nursing home, though she doesn’t say it. A carer, whom Anthony has accused of stealing his watch, has just quit.
Suddenly the edifice crumbles; what follows is a sort of Groundhog Day dismantling of Anthony’s reality. He finds a strange man (Mark Gatiss) in his living room, claiming to be Anne’s husband. Another woman who looks like Anne but isn’t (Olivia Williams) says she is going to make chicken for dinner. Then says there isn’t any chicken. Or any man. She was divorced five years ago. She was never moving to Paris.
These touchpoints – the chicken, the watch, Paris – are swapped over and over again, as are the actors (Rufus Sewell also appears as Anne’s husband – or is he?), so that we are plunged into Anthony’s own disorienting experience. What and whom can he trust?
The distinctive, blue-walled apartment is subtly altered, too, the odd shopping bag modified, paintings changed. One scene begins and ends with Anthony walking in on Anne and her husband having the same hushed conversation about nursing homes. It is a triumph of editing and production design, and of direction too.
This is director Florian Zeller’s film debut, adapted from his award-winning play Le Père, and co-written with Christopher Hampton (Dangerous Liaisons, Atonement). It retains a distinctly stagey, claustrophobic feel, set almost entirely in the apartment, showing us that when memory fails, space is distorted along with time.
It is the first film about dementia to make the viewer an active participant in the sufferer’s deterioration, since everything feels as real to us as it does to Anthony. When the rug is pulled from under his feet, so is it from under ours, too.
Colman is excellent, eliciting compassion as she tries desperately to care for a father who repeatedly barks that he would rather have his other (missing) daughter around. But it is Hopkins’ show. Even by his high standards, it is stunning work. He moves in the blink of an eye from enraged to befuddled, callous to pitiable, not just with his face, but with his whole body.
By the end he is scrunched up, being cradled like a baby. It is a very physical performance: unflinching, dazzling and one so mesmerisingly upsetting that I never want to watch it again.
In cinemas now
The Father, review: Anthony Hopkins is mesmerising in this … Fri, 11 Jun 2021 00:00:00 +0100-Anthony Hopkins gives an Oscar-winning performance in Florian Zeller's dementia drama The Father. Read the Empire review.
Back in 2000, a filmmaker named Christopher Nolan made his American debut with Memento, an emotionally brutal thriller about a man named Leonard who is unable to retain a memory for more than five minutes. What was startling about it was the way in which Nolan locks the viewer inside Leonard’s mind, so that you too greedily grab on to any morsel of information offered and eye other characters with suspicion. Now, 21 years later, another new director, this time a French playwright named Florian Zeller, is using a similar technique to equally striking effect. The hero of The Father is an octogenarian and has neither peroxide-blond hair nor visible tattoos, but he too is floundering desperately, unable to trust his own mind. And by adopting the perspective of a man with advanced dementia, Zeller has created a highly effective piece of POV filmmaking, a kind of horror film with a huge heart.
Anthony (Anthony Hopkins) is lost in a labyrinth. It’s a mental one: the various threads of his life keep slipping through his fingers. Where’s his watch? Is his daughter married? Is she moving to France? What’s happened to his other daughter? Is it morning or evening? Where’s that bloody watch? But as depicted here, it’s also a physical maze: as he negotiates the London flat in which he’s ensconced, the furniture keeps shifting, paintings vanishing from the walls, a piano morphing into a drinks cabinet. Zeller, adapting his own stage play, proves a natural at subverting filmic language to head-spinning effect. It’s unclear at all times exactly where Anthony is, or when he is.
It’s a tough watch, for sure, not least in the astonishing, tear-jerking final five minutes. But it’s also gripping and audacious.
Who he is is kept fuzzy, too. Conversations Anthony has with people lurch forward, frequently reversing when something he says is met with bafflement — “Of course,” he mutters repeatedly when corrected, though it’s heartbreakingly obvious that beneath his feigned comprehension is still abject confusion. Like Leonard in Memento, Anthony is hunting for clues to his own identity. And as portrayed by Hopkins in a powerhouse performance, one of the actor’s very best, he cycles through a vast range of emotion in 97 minutes, none of it feeling false. At one point the character is impishly charming, offering a whisky to his new carer and launching into a frenzied tap-dance. At another, his mood blackens, becoming horribly cruel. But mostly, he is lost, unmoored, searching desperately for a measure of control.
It’s a tough watch, for sure, not least in the astonishing, tear-jerking final five minutes. But it’s also gripping and audacious, twisting the conventions of narrative storytelling to match the awful effects of the disease it’s portraying. It offers no easy answers — there aren’t any. But it does offer plenty of compassion, both for the titular character and for his daughter, occasionally lingering with her, as played with low-key power by Olivia Colman, just long enough to make clear how much she’s struggling too. “I don’t need help from anyone,” Anthony barks at one point. But The Father makes clear that in this situation, all we can do is hang on to each other for dear life.
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– June 11, 2021
The Father review Anthony Hopkins is mesmerising in this