In The Father, Anthony Hopkins plays an octogenarian slowly succumbing to dementia, as he refuses any help given by his daughter Anne (Olivia Coleman) or the many caretakers he’s assigned to, and eventually, scares away.
Anthony, also the character’s name, is a characteristically proud man in constant denial of his condition. He knows he doesn’t want to leave his flat, that maybe someone stole his watch, and that he can take care of himself: and that’s all in the first scene. Then seemingly, things change slightly. Another man is living there (Mark Gatiss), claiming this is his apartment and that he married his daughter Anne (now played by Olivia Williams). It’s a harrowing moment because it’s not played like a fantasy or a horror film, yet it’s even more frightening that this moment of confusion is more truthful than a magic trick.
The entire film is told through Anthony’s point-of-view as he slowly loses all grasp of reality and agency. There are pieces of a puzzling narrative that we can try to put together – like Anne probably moving to Paris, the introduction of a caretaker (Imogen Poots) that reminds Anthony of his other daughter who is a painter (“I miss her badly, when is she coming to visit?”), an altercation with Paul, Anne’s menacing partner, played by Rufus Sewell – but they are all jumbled, almost like an incoherently melancholic Kurt Vonnegut novel on the hard woes of ageing.
The effect is baffling. Scenes repeat several times, sometimes one after the other, like a strangely circular narrative. Little by little, we understand Anthony. An audience that suddenly second-guesses what it’s seeing is an audience that has been conditioned by other narrative forms with a more defined beginning, middle and (happy) ending. It’s also an audience in denial of the outcome that we know will slowly arrive. Sometimes we wished things were more like a film, and we could see a gratifying conclusion where our hero figured the plot against him. Other times there’s no plot but the destructive, unfair nature of the human brain.
The Father is the first film of French playwright Florian Zeller, who adapts his award-winning play with the help of distinguished screenwriter Christopher Hampton. I always like to see new artists discovering their own in another medium, and Zeller takes advantage of all the liberties a camera gives him that theatre doesn’t. He perfectly frames a shot like a stage but then slowly moves the camera to hide or reveal his audience’s details. He enjoys a close-up shot and uses it so well it could only come from someone who has never used that feature in his work before. Many more experienced directors still don’t use the close-up with the same dramatic heft Zeller applies here.
The set changes, sometimes ever so slightly, to further confuse you. One has to pay attention to the background, but why should we? We’re used to taking the image, like a memory, for granted. So if something fails, if something is missing or slightly off, it’s not our fault but that of someone working to tear us apart.
Coleman has the most ungrateful role, which she takes with poise and honesty. Her face is of someone who has been living through this for a very long time, while we are only just tuning in. In one particular scene, she barely says anything and instead reacts to Anthony telling several stories to the new caretaker. She starts surprised, slightly insulted, then amused, shocked, offended, hurt and finally sad. Way in the back, without saying a word, her face expressing way more emotion than a human should in such a short period: reminiscent of Peter Falk’s character in A Woman Under The Influence. Both characters shaped by the trauma and suffering they quietly endure, and both actors hold strong, on top of their game.
Hopkins executes a very complex role without missing a single beat. In a moment, he’s assertive, but just as fast, he unexpectedly adds a little detail that undermines everything we know about him. It can be anything, a slight flinch, a new way of walking, an alien gesture. It’s all so small and yet detailed in the refinement, I doubt many actors nowadays could pull it off. The above scene when he’s telling stories to the caretaker is a masterclass of flawless acting – an entire sequence so damn good it will be copied in acting schools all over the world, never to be equalled.
The Father is a complicated watch. It was for me (who has no connection to dementia), and I trust it will be even harder for someone with lived experience. Though the frame is Anthony’s point-of-view, we see and hear enough of Anne to feel her pain and the weight of her difficult decisions. As the film slowly reaches its end, it picks away from Anthony the last shreds of his soul and dignity. It suddenly stops the connection with the audience and leaves us only bearing witness. He reverts to a child, sobbing for his mother to come and pick him up, but we can’t accompany him there. It’s too far away for us.