We might have all forgotten just how talented Anthony Hopkins is. And considering he’s Anthony Hopkins that’s kind of insane. The legendary actor may have earned the fifth Oscar nomination of his career earlier this year for his role in The Two Popes, but he’s more than topped himself for his best work in some time with Florian Zeller’s The Father. Hopkins delivers an emotional firestorm of a performance as Anthony, a man battling the onset of dementia. Hopkins is so good here we’re confident in suggesting his version of Anthony is likely to become the idealized portrayal of the character, a character that has been portrayed by actors well known and not so well known in stage productions of Zeller’s play all across the world (Frank Langella won a Tony playing him in 2016). And despite the efforts of Hopkins and an outstanding ensemble, Zeller can’t fully separate his feature directorial debut from its theatrical origins.
This incarnation of The Father initially appears to be a familiar story, and that’s probably because it’s tackling a subject matter that’s been covered almost ad nauseam in movies: the difficult question of what to do when a loved one begins to lose their mental faculties. (We even got a horror-film take on the subject matter earlier this year.) We watch as Anne (Olivia Colman) has difficulties with her father Anthony, who, at first glance, doesn’t seem that mentally or physically impaired, but it’s clear from her initial visit that Anne is trying to contain her frustration. But the true hook of The Father is that it explores this all-too-common nightmare from the entirely subjective perspective of the person with dementia, in this case Anthony. Within its opening minutes, Anthony is insisting that he doesn’t need a caregiver — he’s scared off many already — but it’s not just his memory that’s getting hazy; basic details about his life — where he lives, who his daughter is married to, what his daughter even looks like — have begun to blur.
Throughout, The Father makes little attempt to disguise its stage origins; the fact that the action is confined entirely to one flat is very much essential to the story’s origins. (There are no tacked on scenes of the characters running off to the store to “open up” the material.) Zeller uses the intrinsically cinematic tools of editing and composition to enhance the disorientation, but the film’s central strategy to that end is straight from the play: Different actors keeping entering, insisting they’re characters we’ve already met, while information delivered in dialogue is constantly contradicted. It’s a smart conceptual ploy that works to really drop us into Anthony’s bewildered headspace, the film creating a frighteningly unreliable sense of reality. But, that one concept is really what the film rides for its whole runtime.
For ninety-seven minutes, Zeller’s adaptation really toes the line in how many circles it goes in. Moreover from that, Anthony’s eventual fate seems telegraphed from the first encounter with his daughter. And there is little tension in terms of what will happen to him. Instead, what keeps your attention is the performances from its collection of actors that as well includes Imogen Poots, Olivia Williams and Rufus Sewell. But, from the supporting pack it’s Olivia Colman’s work who steals the show, as she seemingly can imply more with a slight tilt of the head or a partial smile than most of her peers. Colman’s work here may be yet another example of how she has hit a career-best streak, but, overall, Hopkins is simply on another level. When Anthony recognizes he cannot comprehend what is happening, he starts to breakdown and Hopkins rips out perhaps the rawest emotions he’s ever displayed on screen. It’s a literal punch to the gut, and Hopkins’ complete vulnerability works so well in part because it briefly conjures the ghost of the actor at his most scholarly and dominant, than strips that away with the cruel indifference of dementia itself. It’s that kind of use of star power that keeps The Father alive.
As does the universality of it. A story of this nature has plagued thousands of generations and will haunt thousands more. The refrain of “Don’t put me in a home” that twentysomethings begin to hear at the first signs of adulthood will eventually flip and become their pleasing wish to their own offspring. And you cannot discount the universal truths Zeller’s film chronicles, no matter what language it’s experienced in. You just wish that for this cinematic rendition he was more comfortable breaking down so many of the walls he built into the story oh so many years ago. An empathetic and stagey puzzle-box drama, The Father finds a heartbreakingly vulnerable Anthony Hopkins enlivening a single-concept movie for mostly potent drama.
The Father screened at the 2020 Hamptons International Film Festival. Sony Pictures Classics will release it into Select Theaters on December 18