Florian Zeller makes his directorial debut with The Father, which he adapts to the screen with Christopher Hampton and is based on Zeller’s own play. With an utterly captivating and heartbreaking performance from Anthony Hopkins anchoring the film, this drama about a traumatized man with dementia is breathtaking and emotional. Zeller compartmentalizes and explores the titular character’s pain, caught in the midst of his deteriorating memory while grasping onto anything he can remember. The Father dives deep into the mind, delivering an engaging film that is unsettling, achingly sad, and is strengthened by Zeller’s assured narrative.
The film is primarily told from the perspective of Anthony (Hopkins), who becomes disoriented, angry, and frustrated when he recalls specific memories that don’t seem to line up with what he’s being told. The audience sees his interactions with several people — his daughter Anne (Olivia Colman), his caretaker Laura (Imogen Poots), a mysterious man he can't identify at first (Rufus Sewell) — but it becomes increasingly clear that Anthony is experiencing several moments in time at once. It makes it hard to keep track of what’s real, what’s present, and who’s who, with Anthony often speaking to someone he believes is Anne and her husband, though they’re played in these scenes by different actors. Facts from his and his daughter's life blurs for Anthony and he’s never sure whether Anne is divorced, married, moving to Paris to be with someone, or what they’re having for dinner. In the midst of his growing confusion are moments of clarity, tinged with feelings of intense sadness and a possessiveness that underscores a lack of control as Anthony’s mind slips further.
Zeller delivers a confident directorial debut, deftly navigating the cognitive space to engage with Anthony's befuddlement while referencing a couple of story points that make clear what is and isn't happening (though it needs a rewatch to study the thrilling ways in which Zeller sets up and explores the story). The Father has all the trappings of a play adapted to film — the use of a limited setting, with the characters moving in and out of house rooms and, later, inside a nursing home facility. However, it never feels constrained by them. Rather, Zeller employs the space to heighten the disconcertment and confusion. A seemingly spacious apartment is no longer welcoming, but alarmingly claustrophobic the more Anthony realizes something just isn't right.
Moments of Anthony looking out the window, as though waiting for someone or wanting to escape the confines of his deteriorating cognition, are nicely paired with scenes that convey the exact opposite. As an example, Anthony is incredibly possessive of his home and watch, fearing the loss of both and quickly turning accusatory whenever the reasoning goes against what he believes. While the audience is swept away into the maze of Anthony’s mind, the more grounded moments in The Father stem from Colman’s Anne, who is patient, loving, and fraying at the edges, caught between maintaining her strength and crying as she watches her father deteriorate. Colman, as always, is exceptional. While the film isn’t focused on her as much as Anthony, her emotions are equally on display.
What The Father does astoundingly well is portray Anthony as a fully realized character. The film isn't interested in a story that emotionally manipulates its audience and forces them to merely sympathize with this man. Zeller accomplishes what Viggo Mortensen could not in Falling, another film about a man with dementia and his son trying to help him. Here, Zeller provides a character study while engaging with a story that feels as fractured as Anthony's mind, all without excusing the man's behavior or, in some cases, trying to understand it beyond the scope of the story. Anthony is charming and fun, but also deeply cruel and malicious, spitting hurtful words at Anne while comparing her to her sister, angrily yelling at Laura and mocking her upbeat intonation. Hopkins' portrayal is brilliant, seamlessly moving from one emotion to another, conveying devastating loss, befuddlement, and the distinctive terror that accompanies his slipping hold on his mind and memories. To watch him as he begins to understand what's going on is riveting and gut-wrenching all at once.
The Father is deep and meaningful, with Zeller more than willing to dive into Anthony’s psyche, as well as explore his relationships without it ever feeling like the audience is being spoon fed information or forced to sympathize just for the sake of it. The film expertly weaves together a fantastic character exploration of a man whose mind is no longer in his control, all while it builds towards the reveal of a mysterious, traumatic time. Zeller is a confident filmmaker and, if The Father is any indication, viewers should keep an eye out for his work in the future.
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