‘The Father’: Hopkins and Colman nurture Oscar-worthy performances in one of the year’s very best films

“The Father” – Anthony (Anthony Hopkins) and Anne (Olivia Colman) are having a rough go of it these days, but their father-daughter stress has been brewing for months or years.  Anthony – an 83-year-old retired engineer – and Anne live in a spacious London flat – with 12-foot ceilings and expensive furniture and accessories in every room – but their lives are anything but comfortable or content.  He has dementia.  In addition to his slips of memory, moments of confusion, and abrupt mood swings, he has just forced – off-camera – his current caregiver, Angela, to quit.

Anthony’s latest verbal transgression has forced Anne to find another at-home nurse, Laura (Imogen Poots).  The urgency reaches a peak.  It’s about as high as the London Eye because Anne is in love with a Parisian fella, and she’s moving to The City of Lights.  Anthony needs to get along with Laura, because he cannot stay in the flat on his own.  Well, let’s not go there and think about the repercussions.

Director/co-writer Florian Zeller decided to take his award-winning play “Le Pere” in a new direction, as he and screenwriter Christopher Hampton adapted it to the screen.  Zeller had Hopkins in mind to star in his film, and in fact, he changed the lead’s name from Andre to Anthony in hopes of some extra incentive or cosmic will to make his directorial debut dreams come true.

(Just to point out, Zeller’s character Anthony declares his birthday in the film.  It’s Friday, Dec. 31, 1937, and yes, Anthony Hopkins shares the same birthday, and in the same year, naturally.)

Well, Zeller’s hopes did come to fruition when Hopkins read the script.  The actor explains during an Oct. 21, 2020 interview with the American Film Institute.

“It’s one of those rare (scripts) which grabs you because it’s a small, compact film.  It’s not a big studio film, and that’s what’s so attractive about it, but it’s so brilliantly written,” Hopkins said.

Hopkins adds, “Really, I couldn’t believe my luck because it was about three years ago.  I was 80, and I’m still working.  They wanted me to do it.  I couldn’t believe how fortunate I was.  Those scripts come along once in a while.  ‘Silence of the Lambs’ was one of them, ‘The Remains of the Day’, ‘Nixon’, ‘The Edge’ by David Mamet, and this one.”

“The Father” is a sobering drama about this debilitating, maddening illness, and Anne and Anthony aren’t the only ones agonizing over the trauma.  According to the Alzheimer’s Association, over six million Americans suffer from the disease, and one in three seniors passes away with it.  (Since this film is set in London, it’s important to highlight that 850 thousand United Kingdom citizens cope with dementia as well.)

Dementia rips the delicate fabric of families everywhere and leaves oceans of tears in its wake, and filmmakers frequently face the matter on the big screen.  Julianne Moore won an Oscar in “Still Alice” (2014).  Michael Haneke’s “Amour” (2012) won the Best Foreign Language Film Oscar.  “Lovely, Still” (2008) and “The Notebook” (2004) are a pair of movies that require an ample supply of tissues, and the list goes on.

Zeller, however, takes a unique approach, and it’s an exceptional one.  The vast majority of this story is constructed through Anthony’s eyes and ears.  Events, discourse, and the timeline transpire from Anthony’s perspective, and this causes the audience to leap through a disconcerting puzzle as we experience his perception of reality.

“(I wanted) to the tell the story from the inside and to put the audience in a very unique position, as if they are trying to go through a labyrinth,” Zeller said in a Dec. 29, 2020 interview with GoldDerby.

Olivia Colman explains her reaction to the film’s approach.

“It’s genuinely confusing and scary, and I love the way this film shows that.  It made me see how incredibly painful it is to watch the person you love crumble, and how scary it is for the person who is having to deal with this confusing life they’re now in,” Colman said in a Feb.23, 2021 interview with Kinowetter.

She’s right.

Zeller’s film feels like a Christopher Nolan picture, or one of his films blended with Louis Malle’s “My Dinner with Andre” (1981).  The narrative takes unexpected and unsettling turns that force you to question the on-screen happenings.  Of course, Zeller isn’t throwing us off of bridges, sailing the English Channel during WWII, or reversing time on a freeway chase.  No, here, Colman and Hopkins spend most of the 93-minute runtime within the aforementioned apartment.  In a way, the intimate space drastically feels unsettling than a big-budget Nolan production because uncertainty arises within the privacy of a home, a place where Anthony and Anne are supposedly standing on solid ground.  It should be a refuge or haven, but with dementia, there isn’t one.

“The Father”, however, is in rock-solid, reliable hands with insightful playwright-turned-movie director and two masterclass, Oscar-winning actors.  Both Colman and Hopkins deliver Oscar-worthy performances, and Sir Anthony gives the best lead actor performance of the year.  Hopkins is nothing short of extraordinary, as Anthony’s behavior is unpredictable and frequently shifts without warning.  He’ll emotionally move from complimentary to vindictive, or indignant to timid within a few seconds, as his mind drives these massive changes that constantly leave Anne on pins and needles.

She’s a deeply caring, thoughtful daughter who doesn’t lash out at her dad, but she’s under constant duress by internalizing his disarray while simultaneously struggling to maintain a sense of normalcy.  Hopkins drives the narrative, and Colman follows his lead, as Anthony involuntarily reverse-calibrates his and Anne’s lives in micro-increments that deliver immediate grief, but also a profound sense of loss of a once-dependable and harmonious relationship.  A heartbreaking and permanent loss.

⭐⭐⭐⭐  out of  ⭐⭐⭐⭐

Image credits: Sony Picture Classics; Interview credits: American Film Institute

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