This article was written exclusively for The Film Magazine by Peter Charney.
The Father (2021)
Director: Florian Zeller
Screenwriters: Christopher Hampton, Florian Zeller
Starring: Anthony Hopkins, Olivia Colman, Mark Gatiss, Olivia Williams, Imogen Poots, Rufus Sewell
Old age eventually finds us all, regardless of any efforts we may make to deter it. It may find us gently or it may bring about a debilitating journey; one that causes our mind to gradually betray us as we tiptoe our way back toward the blank slate we once were. With a disease like dementia, some may even recede into themselves, bodies turning into shells that house what remains of a capacity to recognize one’s surroundings. For those who watch their loved ones go through this devastating disease, it can be equally devastating to wonder whether they’ve done enough to relieve some of that suffering.
Such is delicately on display in The Father, the directorial debut of writer Florian Zeller as adapted for the screen from his award-winning stage play of the same name. The Oscars Best Picture nominated film is centered around 80-year-old Anthony (Anthony Hopkins) and his struggle with a deteriorating memory. The correlation between the names is completely intentional, as the character’s name was updated from Zeller’s original play to suit Hopkins. The parallel even goes so far as to use Hopkins’ actual birthdate in the screenplay when the character is examined by a doctor. While the film focuses on Anthony’s struggle with some form of dementia, his specific illness is never actually named. It’s clear that his main symptom is severe memory loss as he seems to drift between space and time with an uncontrollable abandon, yet it is always explored from the personal rather than the clinical. We see Anthony start to do something, pause, and then move on to do something else. In an early scene, we see him unloading some groceries when he suddenly finds himself wondering where the empty bag in his hand has come from.
Anthony’s primary companion is his daughter Anne (Olivia Colman), who has been making sacrifices in her recent life to care for Anthony. While visiting Anthony’s flat, Anne informs him that she has met a man and will be moving to Paris. In her place, she tries to find Anthony a caretaker, but also considers the ease of putting him in a nursing home as Anthony has historically been very difficult with his previous caretakers. The film circles around this idea, while primarily focusing on Anthony’s experience navigating his own mind.
The Father functions like a mystery film as we are each immersed in Anthony’s unreliable perspective. Like a magician, director Florian Zeller brilliantly fashions illusion out of disillusion, challenging us to try to distinguish precisely what is true in a confusing environment. Zeller uses conventions of film like a master manipulator, creating a space that always exists conceptually as opposed to literally. The production design of the film represents Anthony’s confusion, as lampshades seem to change color and a painting that once hung above the fireplace has suddenly vanished. At times, the layout of the furniture seems to rotate and even the kitchen tiling has replaced itself. The physical world of the flat is constantly shifting so slightly that it’s easy to miss how deeply we’re being fooled. Even characters seem to appear from nowhere claiming to be someone that they’re not, at least according to what we’ve previously been led to think.
In a film that deals with dementia, you’d expect that we’d be able to trust reality through the other characters, yet it is specifically them who present inconsistencies in what they say. Like Anthony, we are regularly receiving new information that is contradictory to what we’ve already been told. One moment, Anne is moving to Paris and in the next she expresses frustration that Anthony continues to make that idea up. For the viewer, the circumstances of the film reveal itself like a distorted puzzle that is continually changing its own picture. If we cannot trust the world as we are experiencing it, then how are we ever supposed to find a foundation in what is real? Whenever it feels like we’ve figured out the mystery, Zeller alters reality once more. It’s a disorienting viewing experience that purposefully places us in a muddled state of questioning that mirrors Anthony’s distress as he tries to find a grasp on reality.
Through the sly editing and staging of the film, we experience real time with Anthony as days or weeks seem to go by and sometimes return without any notice. We have no real sense of how much time is passing or if we are even seeing time presented linearly. In just a short moment, an entire day could go by completely unnoticed to Anthony or ourselves; pajamas and tea at 8:00 in the morning somehow becomes 8:00 in the evening in just the slight pause of a thought. At one point, Anne mentions a caregiver who visited only moments ago, yet it feels like days have passed since that visit occurred. A conversation plays out a second time despite Anthony’s insistence that the exchange has already happened. This idea is aided by the elusiveness of Anthony’s wristwatch, which he is constantly accusing other people of stealing. No matter how many times he puts it around his wrist, it always seems to disappear. He’s obsessed with having it, as if being able to tell the time at least gives him something real to hold on to.
While the entire cast brilliantly contributes to the experience of The Father, it is Anthony Hopkins who gives a career standout performance. Both kinesthetic and cerebral, Hopkins exhibits an intensifying frailty that brings physicality to a character that is already tremendously cognitive. More impressive yet is the extensive variety that Hopkins finds through many emotional conditions that range from a towering display of authority to a crippling vulnerability. Through his age and illness, we still see the shades of a once very intelligent and charming man. When Anthony first meets Laura (Imogen Poots), a potential new caregiver, he is flirtatious and delightful before turning on a dime into someone more calculating and even cruel towards those around him. “You’re not listening to what I’m telling you,” he’ll often declare as he tries to maintain that his reality is not deceiving him. Once Anthony begins to realize that things are not as they seem, we see the confusion start to wear him down. We bear witness to the tremendous pain that comes along with the resignation of Anthony knowing he is slowly in the process of losing himself. He recognizes that the world keeps moving around him and that his only choice is to accept what he is being told as he can no longer make sense of anything on his own.
The Father is a deeply unsettling depiction of how memory can betray a person, leaving someone alone in a desperate search for reality until their ability to recognize their surroundings is no more. Like a branch losing its leaves, one after another.
Written by Peter Charney
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