The Father is an immaculate depiction of a man’s descent into dementia that is all the more harrowing for its formality.
Eighty-year-old Anthony (Anthony Hopkins) owns a stately flat in Maida Vale where has lived for many years. He’s charming but irascible, increasingly prone to outbursts of vitriol; like the one that has driven his latest carer to quit.
His daughter Anne (Olivia Colman) has managed to line up a replacement, but realises that things can’t continue as they have been. For one, she tells him, she’s met a man and is moving to Paris to be with him. Or is she?
The directorial debut of playwright Florian Zeller, adapted from his own play by himself and Christopher Hampton, The Father brings us into the uncertainty of Anthony’s deteriorating condition.
Who is this strange Woman (Olivia Williams) in his flat? Is the condescending, Guardian-reading Man (Mark Gatiss) sat at the living room table truly Anne’s husband, as he claims? Or is it Paul (Rufus Sewell), seething with resentment over the imposition on their lives? Scenes without Anthony present confirm an objective reality, but it’s one that is lost to Anthony.
Even in the relative security of his flat – and is it his? – Anthony is confronted by a carousel of scenarios: names, facts, even people; all plausible but unreliable. Just when you think you understand the situation, in a line or a face it changes. A conceit repeated multiple times, it only grows more devastating in its impact; especially as Anthony’s protestations give way to subdued acceptance.
In this, the film masterfully conveys the difficulty of living in a world where nothing can be relied on and the impossibility of communicating it.
The role of Anthony requires a larger-than-life presence to ground him, to capture his falling off. He was portrayed on Broadway by Frank Langella. Hopkins, like Langella, has played King Lear and, indeed, there is something Lear-like to Anthony’s shifts in temperament; in his casual cruelty to Anne – he refers to his youngest daughter, the absent Lucy, as his favourite – and his tender, possessive touching of her face. It spills out, too, in his treatment of others, like bubbly replacement carer Laura (Imogen Poots).
Colman excels in capturing Anne’s decency, her put-upon humour even in the face of desperation. But it is Hopkins, intractable yet twinkly, who is the fulcrum; the pivot on which our understanding turns.
Production designer Peter Francis’ alteration of furniture and colour design subtly deepen this sense of disorientation; complimented by Ben Smithard’s cinematography, which slowly shifts from autumn to winter hues. Where his work in Nomadland sort to elevate the mundane, here Ludovico Einaudi’s operatic score reinforces the film’s tragic undertones.
The film’s emotional impact lies in its lack of sentiment; building to a climax that is both tender and mercilessly logical. Its impossible to definitively show what it must be like being on Anthony’s side of the glass, but The Father‘s acuteness may be the closest cinema can come to showing it.
The Father is due for release in the UK on June 11th 2021.