Those who have watched someone close to them suffer from dementia know exactly how cruel and crushing the disease can be both for the person afflicted and for their family. Those who have watched movies dealing with mental deterioration among the elderly know that it is delicate subject matter and not the easiest to get right. “The Father” not only gets it right, but it wrestles with dementia in a strikingly unique and thoughtful way. And it features an Anthony Hopkins performance that should be near the top of every ‘Best of the Year‘ discussion.
“The Father” is the exciting feature film debut from French novelist and playwright Florian Zeller. Here he directs and co-writes an adaptation of his own 2014 award-winning play about an elderly man in the throes of dementia. But where so many well-meaning films only manage to grasp the subject from an external perspective, Zeller attempts something truly audacious. He sets out to put us inside the sufferer’s head. Not in some artfully surreal or metaphorical sense. But a sincere effort to authentically represent how his mind processes what he sees and hears; how things can go from vivid to clouded and convoluted in a manner of seconds.
The film revolves around 80-year-old Anthony (played by Hopkins) who is already past the early stages of dementia as the story begins. We first meet him in his swanky London flat after he has just ran off his third home health nurse. “I can manage very well on my own“, he grumbles. But the truth is he can’t. Throughout the film Zeller and his co-writer Christopher Hampton task us with piecing together Anthony’s life from the shards we get from his fragmenting mind. We learn he was a man of art and culture by his love for opera and classical music; by the way he admires a Peirrot painting on his wall (that may or may not be there). We see where he can be sweet and charming but also wily and cantankerous.
But those details of his character seem lost in the swirl of confusion and frustration that is Anthony’s mind. The disease has cruelly chipped away at his memory causing him to forget faces, places, and conversations from only moments earlier. He’s misplacing things spurring accusations that the latest nurse was a thief. And all of this as his daughter Anne (Olivia Colman) informs him that she has a new boyfriend and is moving to Paris. “What’s going to become of me?” Anthony asks in one of several quietly devastating moments.
But remember, the bulk of the story is seen through Anthony’s eyes meaning things often change from scene to scene. Sometimes it’s a little detail like a missing picture on the wall. Other times its far more dramatic (and traumatic) such a new face on someone claiming to be your daughter. Before long we too are questioning what’s real and what’s not. Is this really Anthony’s flat? Is Anne really going to Paris? Who is Lucy, a name mentioned several times and always followed by a sobering hush? The film challenges us to pay attention and parse all of the information we’re given. But it isn’t nearly as daunting as it sounds because Zeller always feeds us just enough reliable truth to keep our bearings and to reach certain conclusions.
One of the most remarkable things about “The Father” is how effectively it blends what is reality with what is in Anthony’s head. It’s a tricky and sensitive balance that if mishandled could go wrong in a variety of ways. Here it’s masterfully done and full of empathy. Take a scene where Anthony hears a noise and follows it to his living room. Their he finds a man (Mark Gatiss) sitting in a chair reading a newspaper. “Who are you? What are you doing in my flat?” a puzzled Anthony asks. The man says his name is Paul, Anne’s husband and that Anthony is actually living with them. It’s a scene sprinkled with bits of truth for us to gather, but from the perspective we share with Anthony they’re scattered and out of place. Ultimately we’re left to determine what’s reliable and what isn’t.
The scene intensifies when Anne returns, this time not played by Colman but briefly by fellow British actress Olivia Williams. And we see it again later when Paul is abruptly played by actor Rufus Sewell and when Imogen Poots arrives as a potential new caretaker with a striking resemblance to the aforementioned Lucy. Suddenly Anthony is questioning everything, uncertain of where he is or who he’s with. These are heart-shattering sequences that evocatively capture Anthony’s mental struggle to make sense of things. How do you put pieces together that simply don’t fit? Much more, how to you communicate something so out of sorts? How do you speak about things that make no sense whatsoever?
I sat in awe-struck silence watching Hopkins convey these torturous internal conflicts – nearly every expression underlined with cognitive strain; his voice often quivering with uncertainty. I was overwhelmed by how deftly he handled the bursts of rage as well as the tender moments of lucidity; the sudden mood swings, the worsening bouts of forgetfulness, the misguided suspicions, and especially the moments where a subtle terror takes hold of him. It’s a ‘best of career’ caliber performance from Hopkins and anything short of an Oscar nomination would be an insult.
It would be easy for Anne to get lost in a movie with such an intense focus. But Zeller gives Colman some much needed time to convey the anguish felt by family caregivers who can only watch helplessly as their loved ones come apart. My grandfather had Alzheimer’s. My wife’s grandmother lived for years in a healthy physical body but with a mind erased by dementia. So many personally know this story and how it ends which will make Colman’s character resonate with many people in a profound way.
It probably goes without saying that “The Father” is a tough watch. But the bold choices, the emotional honesty, the crisp detailed storytelling, and the tour de force performance from Anthony Hopkins (among other things) make every second worthwhile. Not since Michael Haneke’s brilliant “Amour” has there been a more brutally honest film about terminal disease/failing health. But what sets “The Father” apart is its unyielding yet compassionate ambition to realistically portray a dementia victim’s point-of-view. And it does so while humanizing them in a way I’ve never seen done before. Don’t let its bleak and uncomfortable subject matter scare you away. This truly is essential viewing. “The Father” is scheduled to be released February 26th.
VERDICT – 5 STARS