Most often storytellers approach narratives about aging and loss of mental faculties from the point of view of the family and external impact. Writer-director Florian Zeller’s The Father is special for being an intimate study of an octogenarian living in the fog of dementia. It’s a sympathetic and deeply moving story that looks out from his perspective at muddled timelines, jumbled memories and a palpable fear of mortality.
Eighty-three-year old Anthony Hopkins plays Anthony. It’s a tour de force performance, at once heart-breaking—that makes you want to reach into the screen and comfort him, and awe-inspiring.
Based on his stage play Le Père (previously adapted into the 2015 comedy-drama Florida), Zeller has adapted his story to a screenplay (along with writer Christopher Hampton) that uses space, editing, limited characters and an aging man’s fading mind to explore the impact on his family, namely Anthony’s daughter Anne (Olivia Colman), caregivers and on Anthony himself. The use of rooms, apartments and characters is so clever—it’s like a puzzle and a test of the viewer’s comprehension as well.
The screenplay confuses you just as Anthony’s mind is muddling through memory lapses. You too begin to wonder about your understanding of events, identity, space, looking around the set for clues. It’s confusing to recognise a fireplace but no longer see the painting that once hung above it, or to be following characters in and out of changing kitchens.
Anne is a loving daughter who is trying her best but is struck by helplessness. When her father’s behaviour results in his caregiver quitting, Anne finds she has no choice but to take over. She moves him into her flat but oscillates between her sense of duty and love for her father and the need to live her own life. Anthony is no easy customer. Sometimes lucid, often defiant, increasingly in denial, with a penchant to be surprisingly charming, he is unpredictable. Certain recurring themes are used to establish change/degeneration/express different emotions such as Anthony’s obsession with his watch, or fear of his daughter moving to Paris.
Colman is very expressive in a quieter role than her other co-stars, namely Rufus Sewell, Mark Gatiss, Olivia Williams in interchangeable roles, and Imogen Poots as Laura, a care-giver who reminds Anthony of his absent daughter Lucy. Each one pitches in with fine turns that feed off Hopkins. Another remarkable element is the production design that presents a well-appointed home with artefacts and colours that suddenly change.
Zeller’s film debut is assured, delicate and carefully crafted. In spite of the occasional cinematic trick, The Father has a moving insight into dementia. It’s hard not to reach for the tissues when Anthony breaks down, sobbing like a baby and saying, “I feel as if I am losing all my leaves”. Hopkins delivers a masterclass in control and mining one’s own deepest fears as Anthony runs the gamut of emotions from feisty and flirty to frustrated and fragile.
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