A film review by Craig J. Koban April 6, 2021


2021, PG-13, 97 mins.

Anthony Hopkins as Anthony  /  Olivia Colman as Anne  /  Mark Gatiss as The Man  /  Olivia Williams as The Woman  /  Imogen Poots as Laura  /  Rufus Sewell as Paul  /  Ayesha Dharker as Dr Sarai

Directed by Florian Zeller  /  Written by Zeller and Christopher Hampton, based on Zeller's play

Florian Zeller's THE FATHER - adapted to the screen from his own critically acclaimed 2012 play LE PERE - is the third drama in this very young year alongside FALLING and SUPERNOVA that has tackled families desperately struggling to deal with loved ones facing crippling dementia, but this one is undeniably the most unflinchingly raw, intimate, and powerfully told.  

Not to take any credit away from the other two routinely fine films, but THE FATHER manages to do something with its material that helps segregate well apart from this year's pack: It's really a ground zero, so to speak, portrayal of the debilitating disease and is told primarily from the perspective of the sufferer.  SUPERNOVA and FALLING primarily chronicled how dementia deeply affected the caregivers, whereas THE FATHER unnervingly relays what it's really like for the afflicted.  This makes for a very difficult watch, and the film goes down some dark and disturbing tangents, but Zeller masterfully quarterbacks everything with a keenly sensitive and compassionate eye. 

The core set-up here is deceptively simple, but as it progresses the narrative becomes almost labyrinthine in its depths and complexities.  Very early on we meet the suffering party in question in Anthony (Anthony Hopkins), who's at the winter of his life and outwardly appears relatively healthy and productive, but deep down his memory is a fragmented cesspool, leaving him pathetically trying to form coherent thoughts.  Initially at least, Anthony appears to be a man of wealth and privilege, but seems all alone and fears that his one surviving daughter, Anne (Olivia Colman), is about to abandon him forever by her recent reveal that she plans to move from England to France to be with her new boyfriend.  Even though she reassures her father that she will visit frequently, Anthony feels utterly betrayed.  Anne does have a plan for her dear old dad, though, and hires a young nurse named Laura (Imogen Poots) to tend to Anthony's every need while she's away, and at first things appear to go well between the pair, with Laura finding Anthony to be eccentrically charming.   

Regretably, things start going south for poor Anthony rather fast. 



Firstly, Olivia shows up, but in a different physical form (played by Olivia Williams), and later Anthony meets not one, but two different versions of her husband-to-be (played by Mark Gatsis and Rufus Sewell respectively).  Now, how could this be?  How could Olivia materialize into two different forms before Anthony's eyes?  And why is one of them saying that she's heading out to Paris, whereas the other one isn't and wants to put him into a long term care home?  Moreover, why does time seem to rebound back on itself for poor Anthony?  He appears to be partaking in the same conversations multiple times over.  That, and his lavish apartment seems to be altering and transforming before his eyes.  Is Anthony going crazy...or is he sane and there's a larger conspiracy afloat that's severely messing with his already fragile well being? 

Or...is his dementia at such an irreparable phase that he can't disseminate what's happening around him on a daily basis? 

THE FATHER clearly steers towards the latter, and one of the bravura creative choices that Zeller makes here is in his meticulous spatial choreography utilized throughout the film.  This is not a modestly shot stage play turned into film.  Zeller uses everything at his directorial disposal - production design, art direction, sound editing, camera movement, sneaky editing, and, yes, multiple actors playing the same role - to provide a portal into Anthony's tormented and ravaged mind.  As one scene progresses to the next and reality seems to segue into one alternate form of reality after another, Zeller is able to find a thankless manner of visualizing the inherent internal chaos of a dementia sufferer.  Watching Anthony appear lucid and put together in one moment only then to quickly witness the rug being pulled out from under him without any rhyme, reason, or logic becomes pretty haunting. THE FATHER is more about asking viewers to become active participants in feeling Anthony's sickness as opposed to just passively watching it and seeing how it affects those around him.  And as confusion begins to take a stranglehold of Anthony he grows more and more paranoid about everyone and everything around him, and there's no possible manner of reasoning with him.  THE FATHER becomes a slow burn journey into the helpless cerebral abyss for its lead character. 

It has become hard to continually come up with more superlatives to describe Hopkins as an actor, and his iconic and legendary status in the industry hardly needs embellishment by me considering the litany of magnificent performances that he has given for decades.  But the acclaimed 83-year-old thespian manages to dig deep and find heart wrenching depths of pure despair for his portrayal of this sick and disillusioned elderly man.  He has to suggest in Anthony a man that's a million miles removed from the one he once was a long time ago, and he does so be evoking this man's anger, frustration, fragility, and absolute bewilderment with what's transpiring to him.  In many respects, the central plight of a dementia sufferer is the notion of being constantly informed that your perception of reality is untrue.  And it certainly makes for traumatizing viewing to see this unfixable situation get worse and worse...and with no hope for improvement in sight.  Hopkins has arguably never been so emotionally wounded and soul crushingly vulnerable in a film before, and he most assuredly deserved his recent Oscar nomination (making him the oldest Best Actor nominee ever).  He's also flanked by the equally impressive work by his supporting cast, in particular Colman, who has a very tricky acting challenge here of playing this daughter as one that has to be a calm and collected voice of reason for her sick dad, but inwardly is having her own sanity checked daily by his worsening condition. 

THE FATHER reminds us all that the single most important aspect about dealing with elderly loved ones is patience and empathy, something that is sometimes lost on the best of us when pressure cookie situations rear their ugly heads.  When an aging family patriarch finds his memories, dignity, and control over mind and body thrown out the window it's undeniably devastating to everyone around him that's trying to help.  But make no mistake about it: the sufferer is the one that is hardest hit.  This is what THE FATHER wisely understands and communicates, and for many viewers that have had to live through similar circumstances with their own mothers or fathers this is going to be a Herculean endurance test to sit through (if there were ever a film that's not meant for repeat, easy-going re-watches it's this one).  However, that should not take away from the supreme skillfulness and meticulous craft in front of and behind the camera that went into making THE FATHER, and as a searing depiction of the agony that people losing their minds (and a sense of who they are) go through, Zeller's approach here is undeniably brilliant and potent in its startling immediacy.  Trying to conjure up something so unendingly abstract and convoluted as extreme senility is, no doubt, a challenge to say the least, but Zeller has managed to crack it.  The mental deterioration that comes with old age may be hard for younger people to grasp and comprehend, but THE FATHER makes you walk a mile in the afflicted person's shoes to perceive this condition from the inside out.  It's one of the finest films about the ravages of aging that I've seen in quite some time, not to mention one of 2021's best offerings.  

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