We often don’t think about the very powerful mechanism that sits above our shoulders, and how we rely on it functioning properly to maintain the lives we want and expect for ourselves. In times of crisis, when our minds are challenged in some way, it is then when we come to the realisation of how fragile it is. Sometimes our minds will betray us, and there is very little we can ever do to stop it.
In Florian Zeller’s The Father, Anthony (Anthony Hopkins) is an elderly man who is unfortunately caught deep in the throes of dementia. His memories are scattered, his perception of time skewed — his once sharp mind has turned in on itself. Films about the sadness of memory loss are plenty, however, rarely have we had a filmmaker put us in the shoes of those suffering from it. The Father has us too close for comfort as to what it may actually feel like to not trust your own mind.
The Father takes place in a single location for most of the film’s runtime. Anthony is in “his apartment” which is a spacious and decadent loft. Anthony is at an age and at a stage in his mental decline where his daughter Anne (Olivia Colman) must tend to him. At the beginning the stage is set for us to believe that we will follow the close and tense relationship between the ailing father and his doting daughter, but then our expectations are flipped.
Zeller (who also co-wrote the film based on his own play Le Pere) aims to put his audience into Anthony’s shoes, and it becomes apparent that all that we see and hear are either displaced in time or misremembered. We are never certain of the when and where. Zeller essentially takes over our minds and demands we pay attention to the little details that Anthony remarks upon in regards to his apartment, his relationship with his daughter and other familial connections that are alluded to throughout the film. We are carried through this incredibly intimate and subtle experience, though always keeping the audience second-guessing through the film’s meticulous attention to detail and clever casting maneuvers.
The key aspect of this disorientating experience is that the camera is constantly moving and maneuvering around Anthony, always putting you on edge and never allowing you to settle into any particular moment, because Anthony himself is always uncertain. There is also the added layer of the production design, with the spacious loft offering many clues into Anthony’s life and his interests. The score is operatic, offering a layer of context to Anthony’s interest in classical music but also a tool to deepen the ambience. Both sounds and visuals are expertly handled.
He knows that he is sick, he is too stubborn to admit it, but how much of his denial of his circumstances are actually on him versus his condition. Hopkins is a long-time expert at his craft, however, there is a vulnerability and sensitivity here that is undeniably new and personal as he plays this ailing character with the same name. His performance both holds you and repels you as he switches from being a charming albeit curmudgeonly old man to becoming a toxic reflection of the man he may have been in the past. Hopkins delicately balances the many facets of Anthony without judgement and instead allows us to peer into his mind to gain a sense of empathy and a little pity for him.
On the flip side is Olivia Colman, who stands in for every family member or loved one that try hard to accommodate, aid, and love someone with dementia. It is a difficult task to undertake, and Colman expertly portrays the range of emotions — namely exhaustion, that sticks to the people who care. Her performance is far more subtle than Hopkins, and she is used sparingly, because ultimately we follow the story through Anthony’s eyes. However, it is in the subtlety of Colman’s performance where the film finds a balance between the discombobulating structure of the narrative and the deeply emotional journey were are going through.
The Father, in both the manner in which it is crafted and in how it is performed, is superb. It is an excellent showcase of how technique can be wielded to exact an experience that closely relates to the central character, to have the audience not only observe the events that unfold but feel them too.
The Father had its Canadian premiere at the 2020 Toronto International Film Festival, and is currently undergoing its festival tour before releasing in theatres in the US on December 18th and in the UK on January 8th by Lionsgate
by Ferdosa Abdi