Tom Crowley reviews Florian Zeller’s The Father, based on his 2012 play Le Père and co-written with fellow playwright Christopher Hampton.
With his first feature film Florian Zeller has delivered a stunning, heart-breaking and terrifying film about dementia. Anthony Hopkins plays Anthony, an 83-year-old who is rapidly losing his grip on what is real but who is steadfastly unwilling to admit it- and who can blame him. When someone questions your reality do you react with acceptance or indignation? We open with interior shots of a gorgeously decorated upper-class, London apartment. Anthony sits in comfort listening to increasingly foreboding classical music on his headphones. He is interrupted by his daughter Anne (Colman). He has seemingly become belligerent with his most recent carer. He accuses her of stealing his watch- an object of order in his dislodged world. Anne is at the end of her tether. Her warm smile cannot hide the pain in her eyes. She is caught between living her own life and her responsibility toward her father. A responsibility that Anthony cannot accept that she has.
The watch is under the bath, where he keeps all his valuables. When Anne discloses, more than likely not for the first time, to her father that she intends to move to Paris with her new boyfriend, Anthony’s vulnerability overpowers his bravado. During this conversation it is revealed that Anne has been divorced ‘for five years’. Problem is, a few scenes later, Anne’s husband (Gatiss) is sitting in Anthony’s living room reading the paper. The Anne we have seen before is not the same Anne, she is played by Olivia Williams. He is told this is not his, but their apartment. Those familiar with last year’s I’m Thinking of Ending Things will be attune to this technique, the changing of character appearances, the slight differences in set design. Charlie Kaufman did this to represent a person’s inner consciousness. Zeller does so to take his viewer inside a mind that is being rotted away by Alzheimer’s disease.
The production design by Peter Francis and the editing by Yorgos Lamprinos are perhaps two of the stand-out aspects of a film packed with talents on the top of their game, both on and off camera. Zeller has adapted and directed this film from his own play, La Pere. Christopher Hampton, who translated Zeller’s French play into English, is again on board to help him adapt this story into a screenplay. By its nature, The Father is a chamber-piece. The only minimal exteriors are of Anne shopping or briefly walking to and from the apartment. If you look at recent films adapted from plays, namely Roman Polanski’s Carnage (2011) and Denzel Washington’s Fences (2016)- these are two films that are well acted but tedious because the spatial confinements remain from their stage origin. Like, The Father- Carnage and Fences were adapted from screen by the playwrights themselves. However, Francis and Lamprinos elevate this screenplay through cinematic innovation. The production design is consistently, if subtly changing while the editing puts you in Anthony’s shoes, just when you think you have something figured out, a rug is pulled from under you. It would take a vast amount of viewings to truly appreciate the intricacies of their work. The apartment is not a labyrinth, a maze or a trap. In fact we get a decent cognitive map of the place. However, the constantly changing furnishings are representative of Anthony’s cognitive decline.
You experience the film in the way Anthony is now experiencing life. This is Anthony Hopkins’ best performance since Silence of the Lambs 30 years ago. He embodies the confusion, the terror and the longing to be treated like a fully functioning human being. He infers the person Anthony might have been before this terrible disease took hold of him. At times he can be charming, at other times cruel. There is a final scene, with Olivia Williams, that is some of the most emotionally daring acting I have ever seen. Given that the character is the same age as Hopkins, the actor has said that the role has truly made him face up to his own mortality, that this is more than evident in the performance he achieves. He has won Best Actor at the BAFTAs and the Oscars for his role.
Coleman is the carer. She reminded me of Georges (Jean-Louis Trintignant) in Michael Haneke’s Amour (2012) and Grant (Gordon Pinsent) in Sarah Polley’s Away From Her. All characters are grieving for someone who is not yet dead. Suffering because the loved ones in front of their eyes are not the loved ones they once knew. The Father is to be enjoyed on a technical level and to be endured on an emotional level. Those whose lives have been touched by this degenerative disease might find the film a little too close for comfort. The oft quoted late-great Roger Ebert once said ‘Movies are empathy machines’. This film is one of the purest examples for what he is talking about.
DIR: Florian Zeller • WRI: Florian Zeller, Christopher Hampton
In cinemas from 7th June 2021