by Jordan King
Florian Zeller’s beautifully made and masterfully performed The Father portrays dementia from both the perspective of the suffering mind and the suffering family in quite extraordinary fashion.
Adapted from Zeller’s own acclaimed stage play of the same name, The Father sees Sir Anthony Hopkins star as Anthony, an 80-year-old man suffering with dementia whose daughter Anne (Olivia Colman) is preparing to leave for Paris. Whilst her father stubbornly refuses a carer, Anne tries to ensure he will be looked after when she’s gone, and as the two’s worlds seem to increasingly distort and become uncertain, Zeller occupies the headspace of Hopkins’ degenerating octogenarian in a manner both heartbreaking and horrific to behold.
In the ever open doors and seemingly ceaseless dead ends of Anthony’s flat, presented with ambivalence and abundant trickery through Ben Smithard’s superlative framing, the effect is created of dementia being alike two parties entering a labyrinth from opposite sides, only to find themselves chasing the threads one another have left to lead them out. Around and around they go in the blind faith that they will soon be homeward bound and together again. But, as the thread frays further and the constant twisting and turning tires the body and soul, it’s hard in the end to know what is real, what has happened, and when.
Whereas many stage-to-screen adaptations suffer from the often static nature of the theatrical experience, especially when dealing with ostensibly a chamber piece such as The Father is, Zeller and screenwriter Christopher Hampton have liberated the source material from the expectations of theatre to amplify the intimacy afforded by the unflinching eye of the camera. Not only does the film’s deceptive approach to mise-en-scene and framing help engender a sense of warped reality as Anthony experiences it, but long takes and soul-bearing close-ups locate the heart of Zeller’s characters wonderfully even as their minds take flight.
Sir Anthony Hopkins is fragile yet formidable in the lead here, expressing the conflicting anger and upset of losing one’s mind in devastating fashion as his thoughts struggle to find the sharpness and clarity befitting of his silver tongued snark and charisma. Towards the climax of the film, it is almost too much to bear witness to the man who gave us the likes of Hannibal Lecter dissolve into child-like desperation and confusion. Hopkins won Best Actor for 17 minutes of screentime in Silence of the Lambs, and deservedly so – here it takes little more than a few seconds observing his disappearance into his namesake’s character to feel he has offered us another performance for the ages.
Olivia Colman opposite him as the daughter at the end of her tether is just as wrenching. The holding centre in her dad’s presence and the abyssal hole in her private struggles, Anne is an empathetic woman forced to find ways to endure as her world capsizes and threatens to drown her whole. Colman’s innate likability and humility helps her empathetically convey the crisis Anne is facing as she is forced to contemplate severing the closeness of her ties with her father so as not to lose her own chance at living a full and happy life, and between the occasional cruelty her dad inflicts upon her and the coldness her husband affects towards the whole situation, Colman shows once again her extraordinary ability to bring together a maelstrom of emotions and thoughts and level them in her deep brown eyes and storm-wethering smile.
Though Olivia Williams, Mark Gatiss, Imogen Poots, and Rufus Sewell all turn up to frame and reframe the narrative anew as husbands, carers, doctors, and misremembered loved ones, each helping divine fragments of lost truths with brilliant performances in their own right, make no mistake – Hopkins and Colman are the heart and soul of this film.
It’s hard to adequately express my response to this film as I still hold fresh in my own memory the final months of my gran’s life as she began to call me by her long since deceased uncle’s name, as I stopped reminding her of who I was and instead became Uncle Leo who loved his books and who loved his niece. When reality has slipped so far from reach, who are we to tell a loved one as their mind begins to supernova that what they believe is not what truly is? Is it not better to allow conviction over confusion as time runs out? I know for me the fear in my gran’s eyes when I snapped her out of the world in her mind broke my heart far more than indulging her in make-believe that brought back those she had loved and lost.
With Escherian impossibilities and a Kaufman-like flexibility in approach to such follies as time and place, Zeller’s film is as stylistically striking as it is emotionally crushing. This is all to say nothing of Ludovico Einaudi’s extraordinary, understated score, which unpicks the lock of Anthony’s mind time and again to take us deeper into recesses of a brilliant, infuriating, and frankly terrified old man.
It comes as no surprise that both Hopkins and Coleman have already received Award nominations and wins, with many more surely on the way. Beyond gold and statues though, what the two leads of this film have helped create is maybe the most powerful exploration of dementia I have seen on screen, and the one which most resonates with what little experience of the awful disease I have had. The Father is a horror film composed with the care and compassion of a great romance, a tragedy wrought from nothing more than a reality millions live each day. Florian Zeller in his feature debut has earmarked his own name as one we should do well to remember – for a film so consumed by the ramifications of memory loss, it is bittersweet to report that The Father is in fact unforgettable.
The Father is out in cinemas now.