The Father movie review: Anthony Hopkins' astonishing performance anchors Oscar-winning drama, out now in India
The Father movie review: Anthony Hopkins' astonishing performance anchors Florian Zellner's heartbreaking drama.
Watching The Father feels like watching a particularly good episode of Black Mirror, without any of the tech paranoia. It’s an ingeniously-directed film by Florian Zellner, about an elderly man’s descent into dementia, and the emotional fallout that his condition causes in his family.
We watch as Anthony (played in an Oscar-winning performance by Anthony Hopkins) goes about his day at his spectacular London apartment, displaying clear signs of mental illness. Having misplaced his watch, he launches into a tirade about a thieving caregiver. His daughter Anne, played by Olivia Colman, appears to be exhausted by all this, and makes feeble attempts to pacify him. It’s as if they’ve had these conversations several times before.
Watch The Father trailer here:
This is Zellner’s first feature film, and what he is able to achieve emotionally evokes the sort of skill that three-decade veterans in the game often struggle to display. Armed with Hopkins’ astonishing performance, Zellner creates a sense of claustrophobia and disorientation simply through staging, and a creative spin so brilliantly Hitchcockian that I’m wondering why it isn’t used more often.
The first time that the movie swapped actors, confounding both Anthony and the audience, I was stunned. He’s shocked into silence as he watches a woman who says she’s his daughter, but is utterly unrecognisable to him. Not only does this immediately convey the degree of Anthony’s illness, but it forges an imperceptible bond between him and the viewer. Now that you know (almost) exactly what he is feeling, how can you not care for him?
It’s heartbreaking, but also terrifying. Having established this approach, Zellner returns to it at regular intervals, as he heightens the feeling of entrapment. Even at just around 90 minutes long, The Father is emotionally draining. The mind is man’s greatest weapon and biggest weakness, the film says, and Zellner has yours completely under his command.
It’s deeply uncomfortable to lose agency of thought, and for an hour-and-a-half, Zellner creates the illusion (however minuscule) of what Anthony is going through. The geography of Anthony’s apartment changes; furniture moves around; characters exit from frame-left and reenter the scene from frame-right, looking like entirely different people. You don’t know whom to believe. But The Father is never exploitative; it never feels like a paranoid thriller, even though at times, it resembles one.
And that’s where Hopkins’ performance comes in. At 83, he seems to be sharper than ever, which adds to the dramatic irony of the story, as does Zellner and co-writer Christopher Hampton’s decision to rename the central character after him (he was named Andre in the play on which The Father is based). How Hopkins is able to capture not just Anthony’s frustration at misremembering details both small and large, but also his fear, and helplessness, is something that cannot be expressed in words. Or, at least, not by me.
Comparisons to his King Lear have (justly) been made, but here, the actor is required to do the emotional heavy-lifting without the support of Shakespeare’s words. Observe his eyes as they register shock for the first time, and then again, and again. Witness his pride as he demands respect, perhaps remembering, for a brief moment, who he used to be (we’re never told). Or perhaps he is afraid of the man he’s turning into.
The Father could just as easily have been called The Daughter; it is as much Anne’s story as it is Anthony’s. There’s a sense that she’s devoted her life to her dad, at the expense of her own. Her last-resort decision to deposit Anthony at a nursing home, an idea that is floated with increasing conviction through the course of the film, might seem cruel, but that’s exactly the dilemma that Anne is wrestling with.
And then there’s Rufus Sewell, who appears as Anne’s husband. Sewell’s a pro at playing smarmy upper-class Englishmen, and he seems to have made mental notes of Hopkins’ performance and replicated bits of it in M Night Shyamalan’s Old, in which he plays a doctor with early-onset dementia. In many ways, the feeling of unease that Zellner conjures in The Father isn’t unlike what Shayamalan used to be able to generate many years ago.
When I first heard of this film, I assumed it would be another one of those emotionally manipulative Oscar-bait dramas out of the UK -- its terrible poster certainly didn't do anything to dispel this notion. And yes, it can get a little overwhelming in its tragic final moments, but it's a dazzling piece of filmmaking that simply cannot be missed.
Director - Florian Zellner
Cast - Anthony Hopkins, Olivia Colman, Rufus Sewell, Olivia Williams, Mark Gatiss, Imogen Poots
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The author tweets @RohanNaahar
The Father is available to stream in India on LionsgatePlay