The Father (Florian Zeller, Lionsgate, 2020)
Updated: Jun 16, 2021
Elevated by the potency of its performances, The Father is an outstandingly intimate account of disease and degeneration, seen squarely through eyes of its sufferer
Strolling through the vistas of a glorious Port Talbot countryside, a placid Anthony Hopkins recently received his second academy award for Best Actor in a Leading Role. Shorn of a live acceptance speech, the Welsh veteran would swap glitz for Greggs, accept the accolade al-fresco, then top off his visit with a recital of Dylan Thomas’s Do not go Gentle into That Good Night, performed candidly by his father’s graveside. Ever the thespian, this was publicity with characteristic kick and pride, and something of a silver lining in the whole debacle. Gone was the sanctimonious, holier-than-thou spew that has come to typify the probable Oscar clichés. Superficiality was removed. No overt, out of place politicking was present. And in a moment of genuine humility and admission, Hopkins paid tribute to the late Chadwick Boseman, posthumous favourite for his leading role in Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom. Topping off a vast and varied career, The Father feels like a fitting swan song for one of the greatest actors of a generation, and is easily one of this year’s best films.
In his directorial debut, French writer/director Florian Zeller has opted to helm a filmic counterpart to his celebrated 2012 stage play Le Père: a story about an indisposed father suffering through the fog of dementia. Embodying that stately charm afforded ailing British patriarchs, Hopkins assumes the role of his namesake. A gruff, aging paternalist, Anthony is a stubbornly self-sufficient character, steadfast in his outlook. Saddled with sorting his palliative care, his daughter Anne (wonderfully rendered by the unfailing Olivia Colman) must negotiate nannies, tantrums and amnesia as her dad’s condition worsens and degenerates. From here, the film adopts a distinct, first-person account of the illness, as dazzling, claustrophobic chamber drama exposes its brutalities and corrosive effects.
Shot on a modest $6 million budget, this is a movie that could have easily devolved into stagey theatricality, but thanks to its approach, Zeller has made a seamless transition into the realm of cinema, embracing the language with flair. DP Ben Smithard gives the stuffy, self-contained milieu a sense of purpose as it comes to epitomise the cruelties of Anthony’s condition. Shots are tightly constructed as a disquieting sense of dread pervades the walls of lavish London locale. Isolation is continually reinforced via uniform spaces and strangely homogenous settings – an oppressive atmosphere that plays perfectly into the subject matter at hand. Owing much of its effectiveness to a centralised, first-person premise, the way in which Zeller conveys Anthony’s confusion, disorientation and paranoia is enormously unsettling. Experiencing these moments in tandem with our subject, actors take on monstrous personas as locations arbitrarily shift and morph. Entire conversations are replayed with purposefully confusing differences in detail, deliberating eschewing the narrative as we undergo the jumbled disorder of Anthony's thoughts. When the film’s solitary dream sequence becomes just as cogent as waking reality, an eerie dread casts its shadow over the film, enclosing its protagonist in an uncanny web of misperception. We constantly peer and poke around the peripheries of the frame, anxious to discover what these shadows conceal, and why. By the end, the answer is palpable: these walls aren’t just material, they exist in our protagonist's mind as he struggles to make sense of a world that encases and torments him. With a healthy dose of psychological horror thrown into the mix, the upshot is disconcerting, yet Zeller breeds empathy and understanding through his individualised approach. In the end, it’s this deft balance of seemingly incongruent elements that makes the film such an engrossing, remarkable watch.
In 2014, Still Alice saw Julianne Moore win the academy award for her heart breaking portrayal of a woman beset with early onset Alzheimer’s. A deeply affecting delve into the ways in which family bonds are tested in times of adversity, the film was a touching look at how deterioration erodes more than mind itself, eating away at the very fabric of family, happiness, and everything in between. Though undoubtedly moving, I never felt connected with its material on a visceral level. I felt like an onlooker, absorbed in a collection of well thought-out dramatic beats, but nevertheless removed from the true horrors of memory loss itself. In essence, I felt like I was held at arm’s length. It was as if the directors had cynically opted for something more conclusive and crowd-friendly, so as to retain the film's mainstream appeal. Sidestepping this problem, Zeller’s portrayal of dementia is an entirely different beast, unfalteringly personal in its account. In conjunction with its more experimental elements, a more off-beat focus renders the material much more psychologically persuasive. I honestly can’t recall a film that’s left me with such an odd combination of conflicting emotion. The creeping sense of discomfort meant I was thoroughly uneasy, yet I remained touched by the poignancy of the film’s more tender moments. Ludovico Einaudi’s fluttery violin arpeggios are a perfect choice for encapsulating this unorthodox blend of sentiment – lending The Father an eccentric mixture of fear and pathos that works surprisingly well, even in spite of its ostensible mismatch.
And what is there to say for Hopkins? In a career spanning the best part of five decades, this might well be his crowning achievement: a hugely empathetic work that burrows its way into the heart of a disease so many know the horrors of. Running through an exhaustive gambit of emotional beats, the scope of this performance is a comprehensively pitched masterclass in range. The mood swings, the forgetfulness, the sorrowful outbursts - it's an all-inclusive array that's impactful, impressive and downright heart-breaking. The unpredictability is terrifyingly raw and real: one particularly jarring sequence with a prospective nanny had me reeling from its brilliance, perfectly exemplifying the ways in which dementia can quickly transform the innocuous into something sinister and explosive. Operating well into his eighties, there's a level of immediacy that Hopkins brings to this story. He's totally fearless in the face of the challenge this role represents, and though some have lambasted the ‘showiness’ of his performance, I thought Zeller's film was a masterful exercise in tone. Thanks to the sheer brilliance of its key players, it's an incredibly compelling probe into perhaps the most chilling ailment of all.
The Father is currently playing in UK Cinemas