Florian Zeller (director)
To Be Confirmed (certificate)
11 June 2021 (released)
08 March 2021
Anthony Hopkins delivers an uncompromising performance as an eighty-year-old man living with dementia in The Father – a searingly poignant, debut feature film from the renowned playwright, Florian Zeller.
The Father is a film adaptation of Zeller’s own play Le Père, and charts the evolving relationship between Anthony, portrayed by Hopkins, and his daughter Anne, played by Olivia Colman, as they navigate the impact of his illness on both of their lives, as his condition worsens.
Stage plays don’t always transfer well onto screen but not so here, Zeller has gone to great lengths to ensure his story is fully integrated into the cinematic realm, from the dramatic tension around the prospect of Anne emigrating to Paris through to the small, almost insignificant moments which provide back story and character development. There is a particularly touching scene in which Anthony stuffs a cheap plastic bag into his trouser pocket for want of a better place to put it. The realism of the action makes us wonder whether he’s forgotten what to do with it or can’t be bothered to dispose of it, not only is this an engaging scene, superbly executed by Hopkins, it also suggests a playfulness in Zeller’s direction around the concept of normality.
Employing point-of-view tracking shots down hallways and into rooms early on in the film evokes a psychological thriller ambience which is pleasantly surprising. This technique dovetails with the décor shifts and with some actors changing character - a deliberate ploy by the filmmakers to disorientate the audience and immerse them in the protagonist’s experience which it does very well.
Sequences in which the camera stays on Anthony as Anne talks to him, or when it settles on the back of their heads, creates an intimate, almost voyeuristic atmosphere. Interestingly, despite the apparent wealth and privilege of the central characters, there is still something of the ‘everyman’ about the story, the final journey, perhaps, towards the end of life that is universal.
Co-written by Zeller and Christopher Hampton (Atonement, Dangerous Liaisons), the duo had Hopkins in mind for the lead, and it shows on screen. The actor occupies the role entirely and he brings a rich realism and complexity to this portrait of a man who is losing control of the life he had once known.
Dialogue throughout is sparse and every word and sentence earns its place on the page. ‘If I understand correctly, you’re leaving me, you’re abandoning me,’ says Anthony, which lands hard on his daughter, it is an accusation and a plea, and marks Anne’s reluctant metamorphosis into the role of parenting her own father. Repetition of script lines and scenes mimics a tidal sensation as memories old and new, ebb and flow, generating states of both confusion and comfort.
The central performances are faultless. Hopkins swerves terrifyingly between rage and vulnerability interspersed with snatches of humour and poetry. Conversely, Colman’s portrayal of the battle-weary, caring daughter who is trying to do the right thing by her father for as long as she is able, is quiet and stoic, but equally as powerful.
Both leads are supported by an ensemble cast comprising of; Olivia Williams, Rufus Sewell, Mark Gatiss and Imogen Poots, who all do a brilliant job at reflecting back the uncertainty and discombobulation Anthony is experiencing, whilst simultaneously illustrating the ripple effect that dementia has on everyone within its orbit.
Keeping the main action almost entirely in a single location, namely Anne and Anthony’s large apartment, conjures a sense of confinement and protection, the latter from exterior influences such as the carers Anne attempts to employ to help care for her father. Plaudits are also due to the fine editing skills of Yorgos Lamprinos and Peter Francis’s production design, in partnership, they visually transport us into Anthony’s disordered world.
To describe The Father simply as a tale about a man with degenerative memory loss is to do it a great disservice, because it is so much more. It is a beautifully staged essay on the human condition, reflecting the best of us and the sometimes the worst, which makes this film hard to ignore and even harder to forget.