Film review by Jason Day of The Father, the 2020 mystery drama about an elderly man with failing memory who thinks his daughter is trying to steal his belongings. Starring Anthony Hopkins, Olivia Colman and directed by Florian Zeller.
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Anthony (Anthony Hopkins) is elderly man who refuses all assistance from his daughter Anne (Olivia Colman) and outside agencies as he ages, even though it is obvious his health and safety are at risk.
As his memory starts to fail him he begins to doubt Anne’s loyalty, convinced she and her husband are trying to swindle him out of his home and possessions.
Confounding matters further one day Anne returns home and looks like an entirely different person (Olivia Williams), meaning Anthony starts to doubt not only his family unit but also his own sanity.
Review, by @Reelreviewer
‘Dementia movies’ are very nearly a sub-genre in cinema and this year shows no sign of the trend for films that highlight the condition abating.
At the very end of 2020, we had Falling, actor Viggo Mortensen’s directorial debut in which he played a gay man looking after his dementia-addled, bigoted father (Lance Henriksen).
Following that, there is another gay interest dementia drama out for release, Supernova (2020) with Stanley Tucci and Colin Firth, the trailer for which was enough to have me choking back a cry.
Goodness knows what sort of blubbering mess I’ll become when I watch the whole thing at the Northampton Filmhouse at the end of June. Away From Her (2006) and Still Alice (2014) were enough to have me racked with tears, so I’d better take a hanky just in case.
These are all very worthy and moving pictures but in a sense much of the sameness. The Father gives us something a bit different.
Based on writer/director Florian Zeller’s play it pans out as a mystery thriller in which the leading character, who possibly has lapses in recollection, must arduously, painfully piece together fragments of memories when his sense of self and others is challenged.
Dementia movies succeed in conveying how scary the condition can be. In Still Alice Julianne Moore goes out for her regular morning run and suddenly realises she has no idea where she is, how she got there or where she came from.
The Father deploys all of these hallmarks and then some.
Throughout there are hints that someone in this familial rogues’ gallery is being a silly bugger…or writer/director Zeller is enjoying chucking trawler loads of red herrings at us:
- Gattis – who could, or could not be Colman/Williams’ husband – says he has been married to Anne for “…coming up to ten years.” Why doesn’t he give the exact year?
- Gattis asks Hopkins if he wants a drink, but only pours himself one. So is Hopkins really there, or is Gattis a covert abuser?
- Later Hopkins calls out to Gattis when he hears the door close but there is no answer. Is Hopkins talking to himself, or is his son-in-law fed up with the doddery old geezer?
- Suddenly Anne/Olivia Colman is Anne/Olivia Williams! Surely this is conclusive proof, that Anne has done a ‘switcherooni’ with a pal to make her Dad think he’s gone totally gaga?!
Reality and illusion jostle for position in Hopkins’ mind and ours. He experiences another seismic about-turn when it Anne turns out to be at home to a different, but equally slippery fella, played by Rufus Sewell.
This incarnation of the ‘husband’ is more overt in his aggression and loathing of his father-in-law. He threatens and physically abuses Anthony, implying he needs to die soon.
Has the son-in-the-law had enough or is he just, at the end of the day, a cunt who wants the old boy in a care home so he can sell off his precious London flat?
Zeller toys with our perceptions/misconceptions, deftly sliding between the emotional angst, supposed criminal plotting and geriatric grandstanding aspects of his script. It’s a stagey production, barely opened out to be truly cinematic, but the wonderfully subtle production design’s cool blues and creams of Hopkins’ flat mirror the muted, clinical colour schemes of a general hospital or care home setting.
These closed environs also allow Zeller to hone in on the superb performers he has assembled.
Colman has the cinematic middle-class, middle-aged housewife down to a fine art now, but it’s always interesting to see her add extra feathers to that bow.
Anne is by turns – and sometimes within the blink of eye – wholly sympathetic and then resolutely suspicious. It’s in the bridging between those states that Colman impresses, effortlessly keeping you thinking and questioning the events in this topsy-turvy household.
Hopkins was a surprise winner of the 2021 Best Actor Academy Award, a surprise not just me and the rest of the world but also to himself, as it was widely anticipated the late Chadwick Boseman would have scooped a rare, posthumous Oscar for his stellar performance in Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom (2020).
The Oscars programme had been arranged so that Best Actor was the last statuett presented, a complete switch-up from the Best Picture award that traditionally closes the night. This indicated a win for Boseman that would be accompanied by ‘In Memorium’ footage of his career.
Hopkins’ win caught all of us on the hop and the next day the great man sent a rough, hurriedly produced video of himself in the countryside of his Welsh home, humbly thanking those who voted for him.
He seemed embarrassed but, even though I think Boseman had the edge on him – just – in the acting stakes, he had nothing to be ashamed of. His sly, doddery turn, manipulative and helpless by turns, is outstanding and there is some similarity between the roles as both essay the highs and lows of an actor’s emotional range, with bursts of levity and frenzied intensity.
At one point, Hopkins even does a ‘bit of a Boseman’ and gets up and starts singing and dancing, showing his daughter he is physically active and alert and to flirt shamelessly in front of his pretty, young, potential carer Imogen Poots.
One final thing to note before I sign off on this review of a movie I urge you to see is its beautiful use of classical music. After Hopkins expressed his love for Bizet’s ‘The Pearl Fishers’, Zeller incorporated an aria into the scene that sees him hum and dance during a moment of clarity and levity in his kitchen.
Cast & credits
Director: Florian Zeller. 1hr 37mins/97mins. Les Films de Cru/Film4 et al. (12a).
Producers: Philippe Carcassonne, Simon Friend, Jean-Louis Livi, Victor Livi, David Parfitt, Christophe Spadone.
Writers: Christopher Hampton, Florian Zeller.
Camera: Ben Smithard.
Music: Ludovico Einaudi.
Sets: Peter Francis.
Anthony Hopkins, Olivia Colman, Rufus Sewell, Mark Gattis, Olivia Williams, Imogen Poots, Ayesha Dharker, Roman Dharker.