Reviewed by Jeffrey Sanzel
The first question Anne asks: “What happened?” The Father’s inciting conflict centers on the exit of a home healthcare worker who has quit after being threatened by the man in her charge. When Anne confronts her father, he falsely deflects: “She was stealing.”
So begins the powerful, twisting course of The Father, as much a suspense thriller as it is a study of dementia. That question of “What happened?” becomes both thesis and driving force for all that follows.
French playwright Florian Zeller makes a sure-handed, sensitive directorial debut with an adaptation of his award-winning play. The Father garnered accolades for its 2014 Paris premiere; international stagings followed in forty-five countries. The Manhattan Theatre Club production received a Tony nomination for Best Play. Its star Frank Langella won the Tony Award for Best Actor.
Zeller has co-written the screenplay with Christopher Hampton; Hampton is responsible for the English translation used in the London, Australian, and New York stage productions. Occasionally, the dialogue sounds like elevated text. The screenplay carries a tone found in the works of many language-centric playwrights (Harold Pinter, Tom Stoppard, Simon Gray, etc.). Whether this reflects Zeller’s writing or Hampton’s adaptation is hard to judge. For the most part, the style works in this dream/nightmare world.
Anthony Hopkins plays eighty-year-old retired engineer Anthony (André in the play but renamed here for its star). He lives in his London flat, looked after by his daughter, Anne. But is it his flat or hers? Is she married or has she met someone and is moving to Paris? These are the ever-shifting questions as his reality is never fully grounded.
Layered onto this is that two different actors of similar appearance play Anne —predominantly Olivia Colman, but also Olivia Williams. Also, two actors appear as her husband Paul: Rufus Sewell and Mark Gatiss. Laura, a new home healthcare provider who reminds Anthony of his other daughter, Laura, is played by Imogen Poots. Until she isn’t. The apartment itself is never quite the same, changing in the placement of a lamp or a new chair’s appearance. Morning and evening don’t so much blend as occur simultaneously.
Anthony obsesses his watch’s whereabouts; if a bit on the nose, the point is his loss of time. Sometimes the action suggests several days; other times, it feels that a single day is playing over. The same uncomfortable dinner seems to recur, but always with slightly different details. The plot is simple; the execution is complex as it goes deeper into Anthony’s ever-shifting sense of his world.
Hopkins’ work has bridged the twentieth and twenty-first centuries, including stage, screen, and television. He has had an unmatched body of work. Performances include the Academy Awarding-winning turn as The Silence of the Lambs’ insidious Hannibal Lecter, the rigidly oblivious butler Stevens in Remains of the Day, the deeply felt C.S. Lewis in Shadowlands, and his monumental King Lear in 2018 (a good parallel reference to The Father). He has delivered indelible performances for over six decades.
His work in The Father is no less than brilliant. He brings raw depth to Anthony’s frustration and growing paranoia. Flashes of anger followed by clumsy recovery present with a frail honesty: “Everything is fine … the world is turning.” Moments of childlike abandonment — “What’s going to become of me?” — are followed by accusations and berating tirades. Hopkins makes Anthony’s loneliness and desolation palpable. Whether listening to opera or struggling to identify his son-in-law, Hopkins’ eyes are a window to Anthony’s pain.
In a heartbreaking moment, he cannot figure out how to put on a sweater, and then allows Anne to put him in it. In an oasis of clarity, he says, “Thank you for everything.” It offers a glimpse of who he might have been. But what always bubbles below the surface is the question of which is the real Anthony. Is it this kind, appreciative man or the vitriolic and hyper-articulate charmer who wins over Laura with an improvised tap dance? Hopkins, the actor, seamlessly navigates these shifts.
Olivia Colman’s conflicted daughter Anne swallows the constant slights, usually putting his needs before her own. In the threads in which she is married, Anthony’s presence in her home has caused her shaky relationship to crumble. Whether her father’s cruelty is something new or behavior she has endured her whole life is never revealed. But Colman’s repressed hurt and roiling guilt is achingly realized with every glance, hesitation, and sigh. Her breezy avoidance of directly answering his repetitive questions with cheery distraction belies the brittleness underneath. The performance is subtle, and the wounds are real.
While Hopkins dominates, the film’s title is The Father. It is not just about Anthony’s downward spiral, but about the effect on his relationship with his daughter, about her loss in this poignant, relevant story. Hopkins and Colman are equally matched.
Unlike the more meditative Still Alice, The Father’s tension is constant and relentless. The shifting of cast/characters highlights Anthony’s existential dread. Whether this reflects the experience of dementia, we can never know.
In the end, Anthony asks, “What about me? Who … exactly am I?” While the film arrives at a conclusion that answers this question, there remains a shadow of ambivalence. However, in the doubt and pain, there resonates a breath of love, hope, and care.
Rated PG-13, The Father is now streaming on Amazon Video.