With such films as Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom and One Night In Miami, 2020 has given us some expert adaptations of plays. Add The Father alongside these titles as a case study in making something so stage-bound feel so beautifully cinematic. It also rises to the top of the heap of another trend, the dementia narrative, easily eclipsing Supernova, Falling, and Relic. Florian Zeller, who wrote the play and makes his feature directing debut, co-wrote the screenplay with Christopher Hampton, and delivers an emotional wallop of a movie.
At the outset, Anne (Olivia Colman) pays a visit to her father Anthony (Anthony Hopkins), a man living with advancing dementia, to press the point he can no longer care for himself. Initially defiant, he allows her to bring in Laura (Imogen Poots) as a potential caregiver. Hitting it off immediately, Laura says to Anne, “I must say, he’s charming.” With her impeccable timing, Colman responds, “Yeah, not always,” giving us the first hint that all is not what it seems.
In lesser hands, what follows could have amounted to little more than a standard issue drama laced with a treacly score and well-intentioned performances. Zeller’s genius, however, lies in giving us this story from Anthony’s point of view. As our unreliable narrator, perceptions of time, situations, and even people shift and play out in a complicated, circuitous form. We’ve seen incredible performances from other actors portraying this condition, such as Julianne Moore in Still Alice, but Zeller has crafted something far more experiential, putting us inside Anthony’s ever-shifting mindset. Composer Ludovico Einaudi, whose music adds immeasurably to Nomadland’s tone, provides a grand, operatic, percussive harpsichord-filled score here, further putting us inside Anthony’s head.
With the main storyline concerning itself with what will become of our title character, Zeller slyly swaps out sets and actors or he moves forward or backwards in time at a moment’s notice to heighten the terror Anthony experiences. You feel him pushing back against it by either lashing out or by covering it up with a smile, a laugh, or a jaunty skip in his step. Hopkins, at 83, gives one of the best performances of his career, stripping away the bravado he had as Hannibal Lecter to show us a lost man who appears to regress back to early childhood before our eyes.
Don’t get me wrong. This film belongs to Hopkins, but the supporting cast, while more quiet and subdued, have miraculous moments. The aforementioned Colman feels ready to erupt, but bravely quells her impatience in every scene. It’s not a showy role, but you feel her crumbling. Poots has the most comical role, laughing inappropriately sometimes, but when she catches herself doing so, it proves wonderfully uncomfortable. Rufus Sewell and Mark Gatiss act as Anthony’s antagonists, bringing a scary amount of anger directed at him. It’s as if the film is saying that how we respond to disability reveals our truest selves. Finally, Olivia Williams, in a deceptively simple role, goes toe to toe with Hopkins with a lovely display of empathy. I don’t think I would have burst into tears as I did were it not for Williams’ soothing, maternal touch in her scenes. Yes, the closing minutes of this film had me reduced to a blubbering mess each of the three times I’ve watched it. Hopkins, usually the most controlled of actors, seems to surrender to his character in such a raw, heartbreaking manner. It’s possible I’m crying as I write this, but I will neither confirm nor deny.
With its muted tones, stark production design and composed cinematography, The Father lulls you into a false sense of security only to pull the rug out from below and thrust you into an unsettling confusion. That it seems to do so without any big bells and whistles may reveal its theatrical roots, making it easy to see how this was staged in a theater, but Zeller and company manage to give us a movie experience nonetheless. After much austerity, I loved the vibrant sculpture of a severed head Colman walks by late in the film. The cutting between timelines, well-realized by editor Yorgos Lamprinos, elevates this way beyond a filmed play. The final image, which Zeller settles on for a substantial amount of time, underscores the lines spoken moments before, allowing us to ride a wave of feelings over the course of this perfectly executed film. We may have seen this all before, but not in this way.
By Glenn Gaylord, Senior Film Critic
The Father opens in theaters February 26th 2021.