Dementia is its own world. Unmoored from setting, time, and identity, we can’t hope to be the people we always were because our identities rest on the fragile ground of memory and place. To watch a loved one enter this world and knowing they’ll never return to our own is painful and heart-wrenching. Florian Zeller’s adaptation of his own play, The Father, explores this loss through thoughtful direction, careful storytelling, and yet another incredible performance from Anthony Hopkins. Yes, the film is overwhelmingly sad, but it’s never exploitative as its works tirelessly to empathize with a man who has become detached from his reality. The film calmly and quietly rejects rationality as we view the world through eyes that no longer understand what’s happening. Deeply empathetic and thoroughly moving, The Father refuses to offer easy solace in favor of embracing difficult truths.
Anthony (Hopkins) lives in a flat in London. With his brusque nature and ornery demeanor, he rejects caretakers much to the consternation of his daughter Anne (Olivia Colman). Anne can see that her father is slipping away, and Anthony’s behavior only serves to upset her, her husband Paul (Rufus Sewell), and anyone else who crosses the old man’s path. But Anthony’s confusion only deepens as time no longer seems to make sense, he can’t keep track of his location, his ceases to recognize the people around him, and yet he insists he can take care of himself. Slowly, Anthony’s world starts breaking down as he slips further into dementia.
The skill and craft of The Father is that Zeller never needs to “upend” reality or move towards the fantastical. Instead, he understands that to properly view the world from Anthony’s perspective is to purposefully confuse the audience based on facts they already have. So, for example, in one scene we meet Anne and she’s played by Olivia Colman, so we’ll grasp his confusion when Anne returns later and she’s played by Olivia Williams. The basic facts—Anthony has a daughter named Anne who checks in on him—are the same, but he can no longer recognize his daughter, but pretends that everything is okay because he knows if he starts accusing her of being someone else, they’ll think he’s mad. Anthony is forced to play along with his own dementia in order to hide the depths of his illness.
Zeller also uses subtle touches throughout like keeping the framing perpendicular and steady, but changing the setting so that even if Anthony is supposed to be in a doctor’s office, it has the same shape, structure, and right angles of his flat, which adds to the audience’s sense of subtle disorientation. Anthony is home, but not home, and everything kind of blurs together not through hyper-stylized visuals, but through a slow chipping away. What makes The Father so unnerving is how quietly Zeller plays it. Every change comes in without announcing itself, and the confidence of those changes further disorient Anthony’s reality.
All of these consequences pulse with life due to Hopkins’ rich and tragic performance. Hopkins and Zeller make the bold choice not to have Anthony be “likable”—he’s frequently callous with the feelings of others and pushes back against any attempts at assistance—but to still make us empathize with his condition. We can see through Hopkins that Anthony is driven by fear, that fear leads to him lashing out, and he’s fighting to assert any control he can on a world that he no longer understands. In this one character, Hopkins has to span the chasm between domineering father to scared child, and he does it with total command and credibility. In a career filled with memorable performances, his work in The Father is among his best.
He’s surrounded by an excellent cast with Colman’s presence proving essential to making the film function. This story belongs to Anthony, but Colman gives us so much as Anne to see how her father’s deterioration wears on her and how she tries to put on a brave face. You can also tell so much about Anne’s life just through the little moments Colman gives us like her deflation every time Anthony compares her to her sister, or the way Anne lights up at an innocuous compliment from her father. What makes this such a rich performance is how Colman allows us to see Anne not just in relation to her father’s dementia, but the totality of their relationship even though the film itself keeps its focus on Anthony’s twilight years. To say so much without the use of flashbacks or heavy exposition is remarkable.
The Father is not an easy watch, especially for anyone who has ever watched the mental deterioration of a parent or grandparent, but it’s never exploitative or callous. The film is heartbreaking and sorrowful because that’s the reality of the situation. The cruelty doesn’t come from Anthony or those around him; the cruelty is time itself. Zeller steadfastly refuses simple catharsis or a moment of clarity where all can be healed between Anthony and Anne. But the film is oddly beautiful in how unflinching it is, showing a deep love for Anthony even when he’s at his worst, even when he’s mostly gone.
The Father will be released in U.S. theaters on December 18th.