Based on his stage play ‘Le Pere’, Florian Zeller makes his directorial debut with The Father, a film he also co-wrote, that became unfairly caught up in the cross-fire caused by this year’s bizarre decision to change the running order at the Academy Awards. With the understandable thought that putting the award for Best Actor last would mean an emotional win for the late-Chadwick Boseman, proof – if it were ever needed – that the producers of these events do not know the list of winners in advance – a shock was provided with a surprise win for Anthony Hopkins.
In The Father, Hopkins plays Anthony, a character that shares not only the actor’s name, but also his date of birth. Anthony has been suffering from dementia for an indeterminate length of time. Visited by his daughter Anne (Olivia Colman) at what appears to be his flat, he learns that she has fallen in love and plans to move to Paris to be with her new man. As Anthony wonders what will become of him, the full scale of his daily difficulties become clear, as he forgets everyday events, obsesses on such matters as his watch (which he tends to hide in strange places), has forgotten what is clear very early on is the death of his other, more-favoured daughter, and – key to the structure of the film Zeller chooses to employ – struggles to track the passage of time accurately.
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As the film progresses, Anthony is becoming ever more of a struggle to manage, as he has been violent to a carer, and in meeting a new candidate for that role, switches effortlessly from charming to chilling. The audience should pick up very quickly that the narrative devices employed for the film speak to our perspective being that of Anthony’s garbled memory, rather than an as-it-happens showing of his experience. On occasion Anne is moving to Paris, having divorced years earlier, at other times she is still married, though the film is not consistent as to whether the ex-husband is Paul, and the new boyfriend James, or the other way around, while other times, she has never considered the move.
Zeller parachutes in different actors to play Anthony’s acquaintances, and circles through events in a way that leaves us unsure where in the timeline it occurred. Anthony’s son-in-law (whom Anne at some point divorced) is played by Rufus Sewell, until he is suddenly played by Mark Gatiss. In one scene Olivia Colman is replaced as Anne by Olivia Williams, though events circle bank around to our seeing the same scenes, but with Colman back in place. At one point Williams even stands in for Poots’ carer character. Each time we see Anthony distressed and caught between upset and trying to convince all around him that he isn’t confused. We see him get up in the morning, and moments later it is evening, and events we’re seeing replay.
There is a scene in Christopher Nolan’s 2000 film Memento, when the protagonist Leonard (a man suffering from short-term memory loss) recounts his time as an insurance investigator. In working on a case with a man, Sammy Jenkis, similarly afflicted, he notes that his doubts as to the authenticity of the case was always in doubt, as he could see a spark of recognition in Sammy’s eyes when he came to the door. He learns that this ‘recognition’ is generally faked by someone trying to cover their condition to buy time to try to remember, or to give the company they are in what they want to hear. Zeller’s work brings this to mind, as the confusing events leave us with Anthony just hoping that more information will become available and ease his confusion. Hopkins is given nowhere to hide as the camera generally stays in close to him and picks up every single flicker of movement in a devastating, generational performance.
At no point does the narrative structure feel like a gimmick. Set design complements the confusion by all sets seeming to be a slight redress of the same base layout, and little changes made here and there to disorientate, and to confuse even the viewer as to when and where we are. We have seen terrific portrayals of dementia before – Julianne Moore in Still Alice springs to mind – but rarely, if ever, has a performance of this been enough to elevate the work as far as Hopkins does here. Rather than a rote telling of a man’s struggle, it is designed, written, and shot in a way that suggests real vision in what the filmmaker was seeking to portray.
Everyone is on top form, and all the cast, except for Colman (who is also terrific), are asked to accent their portrayals in multiple different ways, in order to unsettle us, our lead, and to leave us unsure of to the basic characters of people charged with taking care of a vulnerable old man. All of this leads to a final scene up there with Tom Hanks at the end of Captain Phillips, as we see an actor tap a depth and standard of performance that shouldn’t physically be possible (pain of this type must be as difficult to portray as the shock Hanks managed) let alone outside of profound personal experience. Judging by other contemporary work from Hopkins, this might very well be the final great performance of his long career. If this is the case, he has saved his best for his autumn years.
The Father is out in cinemas on 11th June.