Movies have done a great job in recent years of dramatizing the trauma of dementia. Sarah Polley’s
Away from Her
, based on a short story by Alice Munro, remains a standout 15 years after its release. Julianne Moore is devastatingly effective as a woman with early onset Alzheimer’s in 2007’s
. More recently we saw Stanley Tucci and Colin Firth deal with the condition in
But these movies consistently show us memory loss from the outside. French writer and first-time director Florian Zeller, adapting his own 2012 stage play, presents a frightening new angle with
, which aims to mirror the confusion and discomfort of encroaching dementia. It takes us from the realm of sympathy to empathy. It’s disturbing, and brilliant.
Eighty-three-year-old Anthony Hopkins – his character gives the actor’s birthdate as his own in the film – stars as Anthony, a former engineer who is proud and sprightly and starting to lose his mental faculties. In the opening scene we see him visited in his rather swanky London flat by his daughter Anne (Olivia Colman). We learn that he had someone helping him at home until he turned her away, accusing her of stealing his watch, which of course he has merely misplaced.
A bit of Olivia-switch casting
Hopkins, aided by an excellent screenplay, nails the ways in which people learn to cover for their mental mistakes. Anthony has a few go-to phrases to paper over awkward pauses in conversation – his complaint that the French “don’t even speak English” reminded me of a similar turn by Henry Fonda in
On Golden Pond
. He will sometimes speak and move quickly as a distraction. And he’ll rapidly spin someone else’s reminder of a forgotten name into a self-correction: “Oh, yes. Catherine. That’s right.”
Anne is trying to get him to agree to take on a new carer, since she’s moving to Paris and is also clearly at her wits’ end trying to look after him while also managing her own life. He insists he’s perfectly capable of looking after himself.
And then – this is early enough in the film not to constitute a spoiler – Zeller delivers his first rug-pull moment. Anthony is speaking to Anne’s husband (Mark Gatiss) when Anne comes in with some groceries. But in a bit of Olivia-switch casting, she’s now played by Olivia Williams, not Colman. Anthony doesn’t recognize her. Neither do we.
From here on out, it’s difficult to know what to believe. Clearly Anthony has a daughter named Anne, and another named Lucy, though we never meet her. But is Anne married or divorced? If married, is her husband played by Gatiss or Rufus Sewell? Is she moving to Paris? Is this even his flat, or has he moved in with her?
These are the bigger questions that the audience must try to puzzle out. For Anthony, the world is growing smaller, the questions simpler. Where did he put his watch? When will dinner be ready? (The film’s looping timeline revolves around a chicken dinner that seems to be constantly five minutes away from being served.) And, in a moment of keening pathos: “What about me? Who exactly am I?”
The film is masterfully cast. Hopkins mostly dodders about, but can unexpectedly throw himself into an imperious, impetuous rage, recalling the actor’s roles in long-ago titles like
. He may be the oldest thespian to nail back-to-back Oscar nominations, after being recognized last year for his role in
The Two Popes
And while the rest of the cast is a ephemeral bunch – characters have a habit of walking out of the room and then disappearing, or reappearing as someone else – Colman anchors the supporting players with her portrayal of the dutiful daughter. When Anthony unexpectedly thanks her “for all you’ve done,” her face practically glows. But he’s more likely to berate her for not being the equal of her sister, and her reactions to this casual cruelty are among the most heartbreaking moments in the film.
Dementia in its various forms constitutes one of the great plagues of our time, one that won’t likely be solved by a simple vaccine.
is a fascinating portrait of a tragic fate that that affects families as much as those who suffer from it directly, and which, terrifyingly, awaits so many.
The Father opens March 19 in select cinemas, and March 26 on demand.
5 stars out of 5
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