M, 97 minutes
Review by © Jane Freebury
The commanding presence, the sonorous voice and the glint of mischief in his eye make this father compelling to watch, even while he is succumbing to dementia. Anthony Hopkins is very well suited for the role of an ageing man, a former engineer, in this heartbreaking situation. His character, as it happens, is also called Anthony.
Directed by Florian Zeller, who co-wrote with Christopher Hampton, The Father is a performance-driven piece, and it’s no surprise to see that it is based on a stage play. There are traces still of theatrical DNA from Zeller’s original play.
The Father is a study of a man who has come to be confined within four walls. Most of the action takes place within a London apartment, a space that is shared with his caregiving daughter. Other home help comes and goes.
It becomes clear that the incoherent world view on screen is the disintegrating perspective of the film’s main character.
Of the few exterior scenes, one is filmed through a window as Anthony watches a boy in the street below. He is practising his soccer moves with an air-filled plastic bag. It is a poignant moment.
Casting actors in different roles, the screenplay references Anthony’s past and prefigures his future
In the opening scenes, Anthony’s daughter Anne (The Crown’s Olivia Colman) informs him she is leaving for Paris, and will visit occasionally. In the subsequent scene, another actor, Olivia Williams appears in Colman’s place. This, it becomes clear, is a manifestation of Anthony’s confused mind trying to make sense of what is happening to him.
By casting the actors in different roles, the screenplay references Anthony’s past and prefigures his future.
Further on, a stranger appears who seems completely at home in what we thought was Anthony’s apartment. Is he being mistaken for a member of Anthony’s family, or does his character really belong in another situation much later on?
The Father brilliantly sabotages our usual readiness to assign authority to a movie’s central character. Anthony is a very unreliable narrator indeed.
When Anthony cannot cope with reality he retreats to his bedroom at the end of the hallway, and slams the door shut. He also retreats into his beloved opera. The gorgeous score is a combination of familiar classical pieces and original work composed by Ludovico Einaudi. The music comes and goes at various telling points in the drama.
Now and then, a ditty is provided by Anthony. He is prone to whistling a tune to deflect from an awkward fact such as the false accusation he made that a carer had stolen his wristwatch.
As the world becomes increasingly incomprehensible to him, family and others who intersect must run the gauntlet of his suspicions, belligerence and paranoia.
It is only possible to comprehend his callous attitude towards daughter Anne, his only surviving child, within a framework of memory loss and declining judgement. Anne has looked after him a long time, ironed his shirts, done the shopping and cooked his dinners, while holding down her job.
She did lose her husband along the way, however. Five years earlier James (Rufus Sewell), a blunt, unsympathetic character who has long endured his wife’s subservience to her father’s wishes, had clearly had enough. After a holiday in Italy had to be cancelled, things had come to a head and he and Anne divorced.
Anthony remembers none of this, nor why his other daughter, Lucy (Imogen Poots) no longer visits.
Zeller is an acclaimed French playwright and novelist, and this is his first outing as a film director. I was surprised to read that he is only 41 years of age, and that he wrote his original stage play, a critical and commercial hit, seven years ago.
The Father will remind many of Michael Haneke’s film of 2012, Amour, about a dying woman and the impact on her family. There were wonderful performances there too, from Jean-Louis Trintignant and Emmanuelle Riva with Isabella Huppert as their daughter.
A forensic examination, powerfully written and delivered with brio, of the effect of dementia on a retired engineer and those closest to him
Colman and Hopkins are also wonderful to watch opposite each other in the plum roles of father and daughter. It is compensation for watching one of the saddest and the cruellest events, someone losing themselves to dementia.
The Father is a forensic examination of the impact of dementia and how it affects those closest to the victim. As populations age and the condition becomes more common, this is a film for everyone, whatever age.
First published in the Canberra Times on 3 April 2021
*Featured image: Olivia Colman and Anthony Hopkins in The Father. Courtesy: Sundance Film Festival