I was completely blindsided by this film.
From the promotional material and trailer, Florian Zeller’s poignant new drama “The Father” seemed fairly synonymous to the story in 2012’s “Amour”, about a French man and his wife who suffers a stroke, but in this instance focussing on Alzheimer’s and the relationship between father and daughter. I expected it to be beautifully and tenderly acted (Anthony Hopkins is amongst the best of what Hollywood has to offer and Olivia Colman is certainly heading that way herself), probably heartbreaking (but in a touching sort of way) and heavy on the importance of family and how cruel old age can be. And while it certainly was all of those things, what I wasn’t expecting was the suspense that came with the film’s non-linear and often ethereal structure and the fact that we as the audience are perpetually unsure of what is real and what isn’t. For once we are not the outsiders looking in on the terrifying reality of Alzheimer’s, but in a way we are experiencing what it must be like for ourselves in a way we never could have before. Beautiful, heartbreaking, gripping and expertly crafted, “The Father” is not only the best new release I’ve seen in the last twelve months but beyond anything I’ve ever seen of its kind before.
Based on the French play written by the film’s director, “The Father” tells the story of Anthony (Anthony Hopkins, so named because Zeller had Hopkins in mind for the protagonist role from the film’s inception), a charming and cheeky elderly man who is rapidly succumbing to Alzheimer’s. When the film opens, we are introduced to Anthony in his stylish and beautifully decorated London flat and his daughter Anne (Olivia Colman) who is trying to find a new nurse for her Dad for when she moves to Paris to be with her boyfriend. Anthony is hurt and confused, but then when he sees Anne again, she has no recollection of the conversation and her husband (Mark Gatiss) is sitting in the living room. This happens progressively throughout the story; characters and settings change, Anthony’s watch is never where he thinks he left it, conversations and days go around and around in unsettling loops and as an audience, we can see why Anthony would be scared.
It’s evident why this would have worked so well as a play, the structure of the story works so that we learn little bits of information at a time, enough to keep us hungry until the final scene when the reality of Anthony’s world is revealed. Beyond anything else, Hopkins is phenomonal. He portrays the character with such a well developed understanding of how people react when confronted by illnesses of this kind, most importantly in his steadfast desire to maintain a sense of dignity and the illusion of control. He is always cleanly shaven and well dressed, and is embarrassed when a visitor comes and he’s still in his pyjamas. He constantly insists that there’s nothing wrong with him, that he doesn’t need looking after and is often cruel to his daughter when she tries to help him.
This in particular was a well crafted element to Anthony’s character and an unfortunately unfair truth for elderly people in cognitive decline; when people from outside his little world come in, Anthony can be charming and articulate, regailing them with incredibly detailed stories from his life. Once alone with Anne though, the one who has looked after him and supported him for years, he is blatantly nasty and constantly refers to his younger daughter as his favourite and can’t understand why she hasn’t come to visit him in so long. That’s the awful thing about Alzheimer’s; in Anthony’s mind, he’s still in control, its the world around him which is betraying him, not him fading away from it. Colman is perfect in this role; there’s something about her that is so quintessentially British and translates perfectly as Anne tries her darndest to maintain her “stiff upper lip” and not show how hurt she is when Anthony is cruel or doesn’t recognise her. Then again you can see the relief and gratitude she feels in the smallest of things, when he says her hair looks nice or when he has a brief moment of comprehension after she helps him with his jumper and thanks her for everything she does.
I was completely blown away by this film. This isn’t a light watch and be prepared to have a good cry, but this is one of those cathatic experiences that leaves you somehow simulataneously exhausted but emotionally comforted at the same time. Hopkins absolutely deserves an Oscar for this, and I would be thrilled if it won Best Picture and Best Director too. To handle such a tricky topic with as much sensitivity and insight as Florian Zeller has is commendable in itself, but then to deliver it in such a way as to actually simulate the fear, hurt and confusion of somebody in that world is flat out extraordinary.
By Jock Lehman