Note: The writer of this review watched The Father on a digital screener from home. Before making the decision to see it—or any other film—in a movie theater, please consider the health risks involved. Here’s an interview on the matter with scientific experts.
Anthony Hopkins has reached the point in his career where his very presence sparks an image in the mind: the instant impression of sophistication. This veteran of stage and screen classes up projects highbrow and low- with his playful urbanity; when he appears in, say, Thor or a Transformers movie, it’s at least in part for the instant Shakespearean associations created by his plummy accent or a poise that might well be muscle memory after so many plum parts from the Bard’s canon. But The Father, Hopkins’ new movie, does something rather disquieting with his star power and our assumed familiarity with it. To play a man who’s begun to lose his mental faculties, Hopkins methodically strips away every quality we’ve come to expect from him—the refinement, the silver tongue, the imposing intensity he lent Lecter and Nixon and Titus—until there’s nothing left but frailty and distress. In doing so, he helps convey the full tragedy and horror of dementia: the way it can make someone almost unrecognizable to themselves and their loved ones.
That the character is actually named Anthony only enhances the sense that we’re watching someone we know go through this nightmare ordeal. He’s introduced planted in a chair in his tastefully decorated London flat, reading a book while listening to classical music. For a moment, he could be any of the cultured, erudite men Hopkins has played over the years. But Anthony is soon interrupted by his grown daughter, Anne (Olivia Colman), who’s been checking on him regularly of late. And though he dismisses her concerns as quickly as he chased off the part-time caregiver she hired for him, it’s quickly clear that Anthony’s memory is getting foggier: He’s losing things around the flat (like his cherished wristwatch, which he insists the nurse stole even though he can’t remember where he hid it) and forgetting names and conversations.
That’s really only the start of it. Soon, details about Anthony’s life begin to blur, too. Does he live alone or with his daughter? Is she moving to Paris, as she tells him in the first scene, or did he misunderstand? The first true flash of cognitive dissonance implying cognitive decline arrives when a strange man (Mark Gatiss) appears in the flat, insisting he’s Anne’s husband, even though Anthony remembers her having divorced years earlier. And then Anne herself shows up, except she’s not Anne anymore: She’s suddenly played by a different Olivia—that is, Olivia Williams. It’s an ingenious way to communicate the character’s increasing inability to tell his loved ones from strangers, and really only the beginning of the tricks The Father plays with casting, contradictory dialogue, and even the basic layout and design of the flat.
Many of these tricks come from director Florian Zeller’s original stage version of The Father, which had successful runs in Paris and London, before hitting Broadway four years ago, with Frank Langella in the title role. Zeller, a French playwright making his debut behind the camera, doesn’t try to “open up” the material or disguise its interiority, in multiple senses of the word; we’re meant to feel as trapped in this small, shifting space as Anthony does. (Even when he leaves the flat, he may not actually be leaving—or he may not be there at all.) Which is not to suggest that The Father is un-cinematic. Its editing is crucial to the increasingly scrambled timeline of events, as Zeller stretches one afternoon into an endless, bewildering cycle of dinners and repeated conversations. The impression is of the present crashing into the past, to the point where it’s nearly impossible to tell them apart. To that end, the missing watch is important. It becomes a symbol of Anthony’s complete chronological unmooring.
Caring for a parent going through the stages of Alzheimer’s or a related disease is a sadly common life experience, which might explain why there are so many movies about it. (There have already been a couple others this year, in fact.) The Father distinguishes itself through the novelty of its frighteningly immersive approach: the sense that we’re mostly experiencing the plot through the haze of Anthony’s corrupted memories—a choice that arguably makes the film more harrowing, in its disorienting subjectivity, than this past summer’s actual horror movie about dementia, Relic. Zeller largely eschews sentimentality, too, even as he breaks periodically from Anthony’s perspective to explore Anne’s heartbreak over her father’s condition. Like Michael Haneke’s magnificent Amour, another unblinkingly honest film about the indignities of old age, The Father undercuts its capacity for tearjerker schmaltz with moments of impatience on the parts of relatives—in this case, Anne’s frustrated and sometimes cruelly dismissive husband (Rufus Sewell, in some scenes). On the margins of the movie, Zeller implies a second, related story of a marriage hitting the rocks.
Through it all, Hopkins gives the sense of a man trying to fight his way through the fog and hold onto who he is. He lashes out, he jokes the fear way, he does a tellingly poor impersonation of someone who recognizes the people in front of him. We get a little of the star’s classic wit and twinkle in scenes of Anthony pulling out the charm for his new nurse (Imogen Poots), and stray flashes of coolly controlled anger, a withering Lecterian side he unleashes as a defense mechanism when warding off the knowledge that everything’s coming apart. “I’m very intelligent,” he impotently bellows at one point, and Hopkins lets us see the proof of this desperate insistence in Anthony’s eyes. But it’s a losing battle, every echo of a past role conveying an aspect of a personality disappearing into mental ether. The final scenes of the movie are among the most heartbreakingly vulnerable of Hopkins’ whole career. You can scarcely believe it’s him. Which is probably the point.