The Father

M, 97 minutes

4 Stars

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

French Exit

Michelle Pfeiffer and Lucas Hedges, as mother and son, in French Exit. Courtesy: Sony Pictures Classics

M, 113 minutes

3 Stars

 

Review by © Jane Freebury

 

 

 

In this glamorous, gloomy comedy that is the perfect showcase for the talents of Michelle Pfeiffer, a Manhattanite sells up and leaves for France with her adult son in tow.

Once a stellar socialite, Francis Price (Pfeiffer), a widow 12 years, decides that she will take up the offer from a friend of an apartment in Paris. Why would you not?

There seems little left for Francis in New York, with the wealth she has inherited from her dead husband soon to run out. It’s inconceivable. She was planning to die before she became insolvent.

Francis is quite a gal. One who crushes meds and who-knows-what-else with her stiletto heel, who enjoys the sound of a knife being sharpened, and she has a gift for putting people down.

Her son, Malcolm (Lucas Hedges), has to go along with the plan to move countries, despite having become engaged to a sweet girl, Susan (Imogen Poots). The process of individuation from his remaining parent has a way to go.

it is wonderful seeing Pfeiffer, still beautiful and elegant, as a woman who doesn’t like herself much

Mother and son travel across the Atlantic on board ship. If there were any available millionaires, or billionaires, on board they weren’t sighted, though Francis is invited to a seat at the captain’s table.

Malcolm has a one-night stand with a young fortune teller, Madeleine the Medium (Danielle Macdonald) whose predictions give an old lady passenger a cardiac arrest.

Michelle Pfeiffer in French Exit. Courtesy, Sony Pictures Classics

Francis is quite the self-obsessed diva. Her character doesn’t quite approach Joan Crawford or Bette Davis or other grand dames of cinema’s golden age remembered for bitchy roles, yet it is wonderful seeing Pfeiffer, still beautiful and elegant, as a woman who doesn’t like herself much. By the same token, it isn’t easy spending time in her company.

 

The comedy isn’t without playful moments, such as when Francis strikes back as she and Malcolm wait endlessly for the bill in a Paris restaurant. After gesturing to staff without result, Malcolm gets up, goes over to the cashier and asks for politely for l’addition. Only to be rudely ignored as the waiter who makes a point of going outside to smoke a cigarette instead. The counter move that Francis comes up with is a hoot.

With this short scene and some others, the comedy briefly breaks free of its ennui. The engaging scenes with the entourage of friends and acquaintances that mother and son collect in Paris is another.

Then there is the mystery of the black cat. Small Frank (Tracy Letts voicing) who is glimpsed sunning himself on the carpet and trotting along the hallway is obviously part of the family. His significance grows as the narrative develops after being smuggled into America in Francis’ hand luggage.

The mystery of the cat is quite diverting. Suggestive, along with the low-lit interiors, of witches and bad luck, but it’s not diverting enough. Although Pfeiffer is amazing, the two and a half hours of running time can seem slow going.

It’s a pity because French Exit is replete with good performances. As Madame Reynard, Valerie Mahaffey is terrific, a real counterfoil to steely Francis, and Susan Coyne as friend Joan makes her mark too. Lucas Hedges (Manchester by the Sea, Lady Bird) is as consistently convincing as ever, and Imogene Poots is too.

for all the talent on board, this glamorous, gloomy comedy only gets traction from Pfeiffer’s sensational performance

Everything of course hangs on the performance of the central role, and Michelle Pfeiffer more than measures up. It is a reminder of how well she acts.

She is sensational in her nuanced, multi-faceted performance as a woman who has queened it over society while young, but is uncertain of how to proceed as she ages.

Wealth and privilege can bring its own particular challenges. French Exit, from a book and a screenplay by Patrick DeWitt, and directed by Azazel Jacobs, acknowledges the social divide.

The younger generation like Malcolm and Madeleine has a certain material disadvantage and must rely on their wits, and an older generation is materially comfortable but short on empathy.

The scenes when Francis meets two homeless men who spend time on the park bench below her window underline her clumsy attempts to close the social divide.

So French Exit, for all the talent on board, only gets traction some of the time over its two hours’ running time. Pfeiffer’s performance, on the other hand, may make it worthwhile.

First published in the Canberra Times on 20 March 2021