The Father (Review)

The Father is an emotionally impactful drama about living with dementia, but it transcends the connotations of the genre by depicting the disorder in a fascinating allegorical second-person perspective. 

Unlike the theater, film is a form of artistic expression which allows the manipulation of reality. The stage is a set construct, and is limited by the physical constraints of a live performance. Film isn’t limited by the laws of physics. Filmmakers can warp our perspectives with ease in order to invoke bewilderment or else explore ideas that would be otherwise impossible to easily grasp in a non-visual manner.

The Father is an interesting case of a play that is adapted for film, but the film format is a much better fit for the subject matter than the stage. My experience with play-based films has been almost unanimously the opposite. Look at this years’ other Oscar-hopeful films which were adapted from the stage; Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom and One Night in Miami. While both have inspirational and moving plots, they just don’t work well as films. Stage plays transferred to film feel static, and stuffy. The Father’s transformation to a feature film allows it to open up its wings and fly. 

Directed By: Florian Zeller
Written By: Florian Zeller, Christopher Hampton
Starring: Anthony Hopkins, Olivia Colman
Release Date: February 26, 2021

The Father is anchored by a mesmerizing performance by Sir Anthony Hopkins as an elderly man (also named Anthony) who is struggling with the later stages of dementia. The film details his relationship with his daughter and caretaker Anne, who is struggling with the progression of his illness. The film is a very intimate one, placing the audience inside the perspective of Anthony rather than inside the stable normalcy of Anne. Through Anthony’s interpretation, we see life around him bend and morph and become more and more chaotic and unrecognizable. 

I’ll say it upfront, the plot of this film reads as very disheartening, and it really is. This isn’t a film that puts a positive spin on anything, nor does it offer any words of advice. It fully recognizes the disorder as an absolutely devastating prognosis, and illustrates just how destructive it can be not only for the person who has the symptoms but the people who care for them. It details the sudden mood swings which can accompany the disorder in startling detail. I can’t remember watching a film where I experienced so many different emotions so rapidly as I did when viewing this one. It really puts you through the wringer, but I have to say I am glad I watched it. 

What the film does is make you thankful for what you have. Usually a film accomplishes this fete by first showing us a character in their prime, and then slowly starving them of their lifeblood. From this juxtaposition they learn their lesson and vow to do better. But in The Father we never meet Anthony before the effects of the disease ravage his mind. We never experience the relationship between him and his daughter. Instead we get these little glimpses of who he used to be. We see a subtle smile on the face of Anne as the clouds of his mind are momentarily lifted. But that’s all we ever see; a mere glimpse into the better life they had before. 

By hinting at these tender moments, the film gives the audience the understanding that Anthony has no real recollection of what is happening to him. We don’t know if he was able to make peace with his life before it was too late. He keeps pretending to be different people and have different professions. It’s all a show because he doesn’t know who he is anymore. We don’t know how Anne prepared herself for this eventuality. We just see the raw, unfiltered results. We see the daily struggle and the repetitive situations playing out again and again. We see the frustrations and the anger of not being able to control the situation.

By itself, this type of viewing experience would be taxing, and frankly a lot to overcome. But the film has a trick up its sleeve to make the ordeal fascinating rather than burdensome to the viewer. The Father puts its viewer into the body of Anthony. In doing so, the lack of background information provided begins to make sense. The audience doesn’t know who Anthony is any more than he does. The entire progression of the plot revolves around him, showing us how we are perceiving the world from his eyes, tinted with the hindrance of memory loss. 

What we see is a world that is constantly shifting. Things we thought we knew in one scene are different in another. People’s faces change. We forget who they are and what their relationship is. The dialogue repeats itself, but in new ways. Most impressively is the way that the film bends time. It will have a scene that makes mention of something that occurred in the past, and then it will later depict that event in the future, catching you off-guard. Events repeat, but we aren’t sure if we’re seeing something that has already happened, or is happening again. 

The experience is purpose-built to make the viewer feel Anthony’s confusion. The plot tumbles forward, showcasing the progression of the disease in subtle fashion. We know what is coming but we’re so focused on trying to figure out what is happening in the present we lose track of where we are. Just when the world seems to stabilize and the audience can catch their breath, there is another wrinkle added to make everything a mess again. This makes The Father one of those films where it is not necessary to have a firm understanding of the plot. The most important aspect of it is simply the experience of watching it. 

More than just the psychological and emotional impact of the script, the production design is expertly choreographed to accent the viewing experience. I say choreographed because it changes so frequently. Every time the character leaves a room, he is someplace else. Makeup, hairstyles, clothing, props, even the lighting changes constantly. This continuous evolution is what makes the film’s timescale fluid. We can’t get our bearings because there is no place from which we can create a foundation of understanding. 

At the center of everything is the performance of Sir Anthony Hopkins. He really inhabits the role and gives it the depth and sincerity it needs. The way he progresses from emotion to emotion is seamless, and doesn’t feel forced or contrived. Having the character with the same name probably gives it a more personal feel to him, and it shows on screen. He is just as adept at being a strong boisterous disruptor as he is a weak and vulnerable sick old man. Olivia Colman’s performance is impressive for a different reason; her restraint. Not that she held anything back, but that she illustrates the experience of someone who has had to deal with her father’s condition for a very long time. Nothing becomes surprising to her, and it has beaten her down over time to the point where she has no choice but to essentially give up. 

The film is so tremendous in the way it conveys Anthony’s disease I simply don’t see how the stage version could have anywhere near the same impact. Films which deal with debilitating disorders can be very difficult to watch not only because of the emotional toll it can take on the viewer, but because they tend to be one-dimensional. We have no choice but to focus on the pain and the sorrow. The Father is still an emotionally taxing film, but the way it tells its story offers more depth. It feels more personal, as if we are experiencing the impact of the disorder first-hand. As it progresses we become astonished in the way the film manipulates us. It transcends the basics of film-watching to become a startlingly beautiful interpretation of struggle.