One of the hardest yet most inevitable things in life is for the child become the parent. Most stories portray this challenge through the eyes of the child, but in “The Father,” the titular figure is the focus. Writer and director Florian Zeller bends and shapes reality around Anthony (Anthony Hopkins), an elderly man suffering from dementia and gradually losing his memories and his sense of time and place. His daughter Anne (Olivia Colman) struggles to both provide him the care he needs and live her own life.
The manner in which Zeller crafts this story is remarkable, and sets “The Father” apart from other films that deal with similar subject matter. Zeller based this film on his 2012 play “Le Père,” and it is his feature directing debut, but you wouldn’t know it from watching “The Father,” which doesn’t have any of the look and feel of a stage play, despite largely taking place in the same location and with a small cast. Zeller appears to be in full command of the cinematic language with his confident direction, leading Anthony in and out of different rooms and around an ever-shifting group of characters as we explore the fuzziness of his mind. As an audience member looking in, we can easily figure out what is really going on before Anthony does, but we are still swept up in the mystery of trying to piece these memories and these people together to create a portrait of Anthony’s past and present. This technique never feels like a stunt or a gimmick because it comes from a place of empathy for what Anthony is experiencing
As exquisite as the camerawork in “The Father” is, the film is equally important as a showcase for its actors. Hopkins blesses us with what may be his finest performance in a career filled with masterful roles. A lot of the most heart-breaking aspects of his character stem from the fact that he is wholly confident that everything he is seeing and hearing is real. He is determined that he doesn’t need a caretaker, and believes that one of them stole his watch. He believes Anne is still married to her husband Paul (Rufus Sewell) when she tells him that she has met someone and is going to move to Paris to be with him; later, he thinks she is moving to Paris when she is married to Paul, and he is living with the couple in their flat. He speaks frequently of his other daughter, Lucy (Imogen Poots), wistfully wondering when she will come see them, not remembering that she died in a car accident. Throughout, there is never any doubt in Anthony’s mind that all of these things are true; when someone like Anne refutes him, he pushes back, but as the film progresses, the confusion starts to seep through. By the time we reach the end of the film, Anthony understands so little of what is happening anymore, that he has a complete breakdown. He is no longer a belligerent adult, set on living on his own and doing things his way no matter what. Now he is a child, weeping and asking for his mother. Hopkins makes this transition seamlessly and sincerely.
While the events of the film are told in the way that Anthony perceives them, Zeller still makes the challenges of Anthony’s deteriorating mind on those around him clear. It is apparent that Anne has sacrificed a lot to care for her father—it led to the end of her marriage, for one thing—but there’s never a “woe-is-me” moment where Anne lashes out about everything she has given up. Through Colman’s performance, wrought with kindness and sadness and love, we see that Anne cares for her father as long as she can, until she cannot do it herself any longer. Colman and Hopkins are perfectly matched as father and daughter. Sewell, as well as Mark Gatiss, who plays another version of Paul that Anthony occasionally encounters, are despicable in a way that feels a little over the top, but works overall in the context of the film.
“The Father” has been a late comer to this year’s awards season (it has only just recently been released for the public to see), but it has still swept up a bevy of Oscar nominations, including Best Picture and acting nominations for Hopkins and Colman. The importance of such accolades is arguable, but hopefully they provoke audiences to seek out this movie. “The Father” is an example of what the language of cinema can accomplish in a way that few other mediums can. It’s a frightening and devastating portrait of what could be, for us, or for our family members, but also a reminder to be patient and kind.
“The Father” is now playing in select theaters and is available to rent on demand on all digital platforms. Runtime: 97 minutes. Rated PG-13.