Every film teaches you how to read it. The way a filmmaker encourages you to pick up on clues, references, motifs, is a key part of the way we engage with cinema. Depending on the genre, that ‘working out’ of meaning tends to affect the way we respond to the film itself. It might seem strange that my first instinct in talking about Florian Zeller’s domestic drama “The Father” is to encourage you not to read anything about it before seeing it, including this review. The film is, not explicitly, a thriller that depends on withholding of information. In fact, the key part of the ‘spoiler’ about the film is baked into its very logline. And, yet, the way that Zeller (director and writer) and Christopher Hampton (cowriter) navigate the world of the protagonist creates an immediately compelling way of having us ‘figure out’ what’s happening in the world of the film.
Zeller, a French playwright, adapts his own play – also titled “The Father” (or specifically “Le Père”) — in his directorial debut. The story follows an elderly man (Anthony Hopkins as Anthony) struggling to acclimate to his progressing memory loss because of dementia. That is the complete plot of the film. Over the course of 97 minutes, we watch Anthony slowly coming to grips with his hold on reality, or realising how poor his grip on reality is. What makes “The Father” increasingly disorienting, for Anthony as well as the audience, is that we are never sure how much time the 97 minutes of the film are meant to cover.
“The Father” is completely beholden to the perspective of Anthony. I use the word perspective somewhat loosely since Anthony is very often uncertain as to what is going on around him, but the film hews close to where he is psychologically. We are almost always with him, and for the entire running time of the film, “The Father” is edited with only the briefest pause in momentum as if everything we see is happening in real time. This is, obviously not so – and becomes increasingly obvious as the film goes on. And, as the film goes on, and we try to piece together not just what is happening but – and this is critical – when it is happening “The Father” reveals itself as being a lot more slippery than we previously discerned.
If there is a ‘father’, then there must be a child. And, in this case, Anthony has a daughter – Anne. Anne (played by Olivia Colman, but sometimes by Olivia Williams) cares for her father, but is becoming increasingly unable to keep up with him. Depending on which version of the story we are in, Anne has invited Anthony to live with her and her husband. Or, Anne is separated and allows Anthony to live on his own while she checks in every day with a paid carer keeping Anthony company. Or, Anne is living with Anthony but is moving to Paris with her fiancé and needs someone to stay with Anthony. Each option of the story occurs, first as false memories and then – we realise – as all things that have happened some time ago.
The same disorienting uncertainty that Anthony feels when confronted with information that does not match where he is mentally, is the same uncertainty we get trying to figure out what is what – but also who is who. We know that he has dementia – which gives us more information than he does – but beyond that we are as uncertain as he is about what’s happening, and when it is happening. Each time a character leaves Anthony we are unnerved because we aren’t sure which version will return. So, the film begins to make us feel like Anthony. We only trust the now, and find ourselves mistrusting the past and fearful of the future.
A lot of this is dependent on the editing from Yorgos Lamprinos, which accelerates the steady flow of the film’s running time, blurring the present and the past in ways that heighten the disorienting nature of Anthony’s mind. It’s the film’s best asset and gently creates a dynamic that would not be out of place in a horror film.
By virtue of the way the film operates, though, it is a showcase for Anthony Hopkins. Save for one very brief scene, the film is told completely from his perspective. Even if Anthony knows exactly who he is, we do not know exactly who is, and the film plays around with the gradual giving of information to contextualise who this person is. This leaves every other actor playing some version of themselves (or other selves) filtered through Anthony. Olivia Colman and Olivia Williams share the role of Anne. But Olivia Williams also shares the role of a carer for Anthony with Imogen Poots, who may also be playing another daughter of Anthony. Anne’s husband is either Rufus Sewell or Mark Gatiss, and the film earns a lot of mileage from watching these varying actors work out which iteration of which persons they are in Anthony’s head. They are all excellent, and Colman – who is usually playing Anne – is incredibly good at playing Anne’s care but exhaustion especially in moments of silence.
I find myself returning to Olivia Williams, though. She’s technically giving the briefest roles of the supporting cast, and speaking about why she’s good without spoiling who she is in the film is difficult but it’s a welcome reminder of what a shrewd performer she is. There’s a slightest pause in a reaction she gives to Anthony at the very end of the film that’s one of its most heartrending moments. It’s part of the film’s larger awareness of interpersonal relationships and the effect that dementia has on other people, while keeping the film fiercely tied to Anthony. It makes “The Father” more distinctive than its logline might imply. It’s incredibly thoughtful about these people, who they are and who they could be but particularly about how Anthony feels about them – and in some cases how they feel about him.
And, “The Father” is very thoughtful and good. It is also, for the most part, not very pleasant and it cleverly ends without anything resembling catharsis. In fact, the movie seems intent on working itself out in your head after you’ve already seen it so that I suspect that watching it more than once might present a more coherent idea of the what or the how. But, watching it again to figure it out feels antithetical to the immediate value of “The Father” and its engagement with dementia. Even as Zeller sets up the film as a kind of thriller, purely on the account that the protracted dramatic irony facilitates key bits of information separating us from Anthony, figuring out what’s going on will not necessarily bring any gratification or joy. I suspect watching it again may only be more emotionally exhausting. It’s a modest intention within the realm of the more ambitious designs of films this past year, but the exact focus of the domestic strife at the root of “The Father” is enough to break your heart. When the camera leaves Anthony for the very last shot, we are moved for him but also relieved to be released from his tragedy.
The Father will be available on VOD from March 26