“The Father” Thrives in Disjointed Nuance

Olivia Colman and Anthony Hopkins in THE FATHER
(c) IMDb

There’s a reason Florian Zeller wanted only Anthony Hopkins for the part. Had it gone another way, this film wouldn’t even exist. And it goes beyond the protagonist also being named Anthony and also being born one day shy of 1938. Clearly, that was no coincidence. The role really was tailor-made.

There’s something about Hopkins’ eyes – those intense, wide-set eyes that galvanized us, as they pierced through the screen like we were Clarice Sterling, or heck, like he was about to partake of our livers like he did with that census taker (cue hiss). Three decades after The Silence of the Lambs, that gaze remains potent. Except, of course, it serves a different purpose this time. When he was Hannibal Lecter, those eyes struck fear. Here, they expose his fear, as well as his confusion and anxiety. Moreover, they draw us in. And in the process, we start seeing the world through his wavering perspective.

This isn’t the first time Zeller’s 2012 play, Le Père, made it onscreen. Philippe Le Guay did it in French before with Floride (2015). This latest version, however, hits a milestone in more ways than one. It’s the first with Zeller himself at the helm, making it his debut as both film director and screenwriter. It’s also the first film adaptation made in English. For the script, Zeller collaborated with fellow playwright and Oscar winner Sir Christopher Hampton (Dangerous Liaisons). The title of the resulting anglicized film is the direct translation of the original’s.

The Father debuted at the Sundance Film Festival in January 2020 and had a brief, buzzer-beating U.S. run just before global lockdown. Since then, it managed to make two more  festival rounds amidst the pandemic: the Toronto International Film Festival and AFI Film Fest, in September and October of last year, respectively.

As with the source material, the film follows an old man with dementia, magnificently portrayed by Hopkins. Resolute that he can manage on his own, he refuses all forms of assistance. This constantly puts him at odds with his daughter, Anne, played with the usual gravitas by Olivia Colman (The Favourite, The Crown). The arguments heat up particularly whenever he drives away prospective caretakers and refuses to vacate his flat.

But is it really his flat? 

As the tale progresses, more questions are raised: Is Anne really married? Is she or is she not moving to Paris? And why is his other daughter missing in action? The plot really never lets us know for sure. Neither do Peter Francis’ continuity-defying production design and Yorgos Lamprinos’ unsettling cuts. By incorporating small changes every other take, the narrative techniques keep us involved in the confusion. We become as disoriented as the main character. As we sink deeper into the haze, only one thing becomes evident. It’s no longer about Anthony’s relationships with the people around him – we’re not even sure who they are at this point. Rather, it’s about the internal turmoil exacerbated by his memory loss.

Naturally, no sense of hope is provided towards the end. There’s rarely any light at the end of the tunnel, as far as the condition is concerned. But while the story justifiably pulls us in different directions, it’s the visceral performances that drive the message home. All these make The Father a harrowing journey worth taking.

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