Director: Florian Zeller
Writer: Christopher Hampton, Florian Zeller
Cast: Anthony Hopkins, Olivia Colman, Mark Gatiss
Cinematographer: Ben Smithard
Editor: Yorgos Lamprinos
Streaming on: Lionsgate Play
The Father is a devastating film. One man’s descent into dementia becomes a gutting reminder of your own mortality. The heartbreak of watching Anthony’s mind, and with it his relationships, unravel is almost unbearable at times. The film reminded me of the famous Gerard Manley Hopkins poem Spring and Fall, in which the poet begins by asking a young child, “Margaret are you grieving, Over Goldengrove unleaving?” He goes on to say: “Now no matter, child, the name; Sorrow’s springs are the same,” and concludes with the lines, “It is the blight man was born for, It is Margaret you mourn for.” By the end of The Father, I was a blubbering mess, mourning as much for Anthony as for myself.
The Father is the feature film debut of celebrated French playwright Florian Zeller, who adapted it along with Christopher Hampton from his own award-winning play. Anthony is a retired engineer, who lives alone in a spacious, tastefully decorated apartment in London. His daughter Anne visits regularly to check up on him. It’s a routine enough scenario and we assume that what we are seeing is actually happening. But then Zeller pulls the rug out from under our feet. People morph into other people. The apartment’s spaces, colours and furniture change – this device, orchestrated by production designer Peter Francis – is a masterstroke because at first you wonder if you weren’t paying enough attention or if, like Anthony, you just forgot. Time loops so that a scene which appears to be following another scene is revealed as one preceding it. The screenplay puts us in Anthony’s head. Like him, we struggle to make sense of what is happening. It’s terrifying.
And this is what makes The Father so brilliant – the film seamlessly blends genuine fear with overwhelming sadness. In places, Anthony’s disorientation, which is also ours, seems straight out of a horror film. In one scene, he hears the voice of his second daughter Lucy and walks out of his bedroom but the apartment transforms into a nursing home. We also see flashes of viciousness in his behaviour, especially with his caregivers. Early in the film, we are told that the third one recently left – among other things, he called her a bitch. There are moments in which a hint of Hannibal Lecter seems to flutter over his expressions.
Anthony Hopkins, who plays Anthony, became the oldest Best Actor Oscar winner for this performance. He is absolutely magnificent, gliding from charming to cruel in a heartbeat. There are close-ups in which you can almost see the fog in his mind descending over his eyes. Anthony is both horribly vulnerable but also brutal. And when you see Anne’s stricken face, you wonder, was he a good father? Anthony clearly had a favourite daughter. In one scene, he dismisses his dead wife with the adjective ‘sober’. Meanwhile Anne veers between sadness, affection and wanting to strangle him.
Oscar-winning actor Olivia Colman is also remarkable as Anne, a daughter torn between trying to do the right thing by her father and trying to live her own life. In a scene that broke my heart, she helps him put his sweater on, as a mother might with her son. It’s the only time in the film that he thanks her. But Anne’s burden frays her marriage – Rufus Sewell plays her embittered husband. There is one especially horrifying exchange between him and Anthony but did it actually happen like that? We don’t know. The Father also features strong turns by Imogen Poots and Mark Gatiss.
In the way it deals with decay and death and is mostly set in an apartment, The Father might remind you of Michael Haneke’s masterful Amour. Like that film, this one will also force you to confront your death. But it also nudges you, as a character says, to go for a walk while it’s sunny. Because there is no escaping the fact that for all of us, the Goldengrove is unleaving.
You can watch The Father on the Lionsgate Play streaming service.