THE STORY – A man refuses all assistance from his daughter as he ages. As he tries to make sense of his changing circumstances, he begins to doubt his loved ones, his own mind and even the fabric of his reality.
THE CAST – Anthony Hopkins, Olivia Colman, Mark Gatiss, Imogen Poots, Rufus Sewell & Olivia Williams
THE TEAM – Florian Zeller (Director/Writer) & Christopher Hampton (Writer)
THE RUNNING TIME – 97 Minutes
By Dan Bayer
It’s always a dicey prospect to have a writer direct their own work. At their best, they can offer unique insight into the text, but more often than not, they tend to feel like the work of a director who treats the screenplay as sacred and will not make any edits. Adapting a play to a film can be similarly dicey, as they are prone to either unnecessarily opening up the play, to make it more cinematic, or to feeling like we’re just watching a filmed play with no sense of cinematic interest. And all that is to say nothing of a playwright both adapting and directing their own work as a film. So Florian Zeller’s “The Father” is cause for celebration. It is a masterwork of the stage, transformed into a masterwork of cinema by the man who originally wrote it.
“The Father” is something of a magic trick, both onstage and on-screen. It is the story of Anthony (Anthony Hopkins), an elderly gentleman living in an apartment with occasional visits from his daughter, Anne (Olivia Colman). Anne expresses concern that her father is no longer able to take care of himself, but Anthony assures her that he is fine. He seems fine, too, until the next day when he finds an unknown man in his apartment, which looks ever so slightly different, and an unknown woman shows up claiming to be Anne. What is happening? Who are these people? What is real and what is not? While the stage version of the play drags these questions out for a bit longer, the film lets us know relatively early on that Anthony is suffering from dementia. The story isn’t much: Anthony’s dementia gets worse and worse as Anne is forced to hire a carer (Imogen Poots) to help her take care of him. The real magic is in how Zeller tells that story, using a series of subtle tricks to lock us inside Anthony’s slowly deteriorating subjective experience of time and place.
Zeller’s mastery of the visual language of film is evident right from the start when we are introduced to Anthony’s apartment. Characterized by two long hallways with doors at either end, it can be difficult to tell just where we are in the layout – which room is where, which hallway is which, etc. It’s not so noticeable at first but it quickly becomes apparent after a scene or two (even while watching, the film is slippery in its chronology) when the walls seem to change color. That subtle shift sets us on alert, making us question what we thought we knew – surely the walls were not blue! Surely that room was not there! But the artwork and furniture looks the same… or does it? Set as it is in a single location (or is it!?), “The Father” can’t help betraying its roots as a stage play, but Zeller smartly uses theatrical conventions against us. The characters seem to be wearing the same clothes from scene to scene, but surely we are now in a different day? The set is static, but surely that chair was on the other side of the room? Or was it just that we saw it from a different angle? The incredibly smart editing by Yorgos Lamprinos helps to keep us off-balance, working together with the screenplay (co-written by Zeller with Christopher Hampton) to create a series of scenes that catch us off guard by revealing themselves to be circular, looping back to their beginning or even a previous scene with different characters. It is thrilling and horrifying to watch as we realize what is happening, and are powerless to stop it.
All of this would not work, though, without great performances to give the film some emotional heft. Olivia Colman is wonderful, as she’s able to shift the entire tone of a scene with the slightest pause or change of expression. Considering how thoroughly “The Father” aligns us with Anthony’s experience, it is a testament to Colman’s talents that we sympathize with Anne as much as we do. Ultimately, though, this is Hopkins’s film. The actor, stagnating for so long in roles unworthy of his talents, had a resurgence last year with a great role in “The Two Popes,” and this is an even better one, providing a huge range of emotions to play. Hopkins fully burrows into Anthony’s brain and body, providing subtle hints early on that despite his protestations, Anthony is not quite all there. His shuffling gait and unsteady stance work against his lively energy, and his slightly irascible personality turns on a dime to furious anger. He manages to display a mind-boggling amount of variations of confusion – sometimes startled, sometimes horrified, sometimes turning inward with sadness. Anyone with an elderly family member struggling with memory issues will recognize small details like the way he absent-mindedly stuffs a plastic grocery bag into his pocket or constantly fiddles with his wrist to check for his watch. But as the film goes on and Anthony becomes more and more confused, Hopkins digs ever deeper, slowly chipping away at Anthony’s defenses until he is a hollowed-out, broken shell of a man. The final scene of the film is haunting, with Hopkins accumulating an emotional force unrivaled by any performance in his formidable filmography. To say that it is a tour de force feels like a disservice; it is one of the greatest pieces of acting ever committed to film.
With Hopkins’s tremendous work at its center, “The Father” could have been far worse than it is and still worked. But Zeller works just as hard as his lead actor to ensure the film’s success, resulting in a final product that is so much more than just a piece of cinema. It is a powerful film, an unforgettable descent into the depths of one man’s mind that traps the audience in their seats as they desperately try to escape, just as the main character does. It is not just a film that you watch, it is a film that you experience – mind, body, and soul.
THE FINAL SCORE
THE GOOD – Stunning direction from writer-director Florian Zeller that traps you inside the mind of its protagonist, a never-better Anthony Hopkins.
THE BAD – Can be a bit exhausting to watch.