Considering the rave Sundance reviews for Anthony Hopkins’ heartbreaking performance in Florian Zeller’s The Father, it’s almost unfathomable we’ve been waiting a full year to finally see it. Of course, part of the reason has to do with the pandemic, but the other reason is more shrewd, as Hopkins stands poised to earn his second Oscar nomination in a row, following The Two Popes, and possibly his first win since The Silence of the Lambs almost three decades ago.
Hopkins is a force of nature in The Father, playing a role that demands a full emotional and intellectual scope. He plays Anthony, an aging man living in a London flat and valuing his independence, much to the chagrin of his daughter Anne (Olivia Colman) who struggles to find caretakers he won’t run off angrily. Initially, Anthony seems like just another ornery curmudgeon, but it isn’t long before we see in Anne’s reaction that this is more than just an old man’s rantings. He insists the most recent caretaker has stolen a watch. Anne reminds her father that she’s leaving for Paris to be with a new man in her life, and someone permanent needs to be hired soon.
Under normal circumstances, this is an all-too-familiar situation, one faced by many households dealing with an aging parent. But when Anthony has no recollection of Anne leaving for anywhere, much less Paris, we begin to suspect something is up. The confusion mounts when Anthony encounters Paul (Mark Gatiss) who says he is Anne’s husband. When we see Anne again a few minutes later, she looks completely different. Zeller, perhaps knowingly, cast Olivia Williams in this new version of Anne. The two Olivias have been confused with one another for years, and for a moment seeing Williams boggles the mind. Are our eyes playing games with us? What is happening? Our disorientation matches Anthony’s, and it only gets worse when Rufus Sewell shows up as yet another version of Paul.
There’s also the introduction of Imogen Poots as Laura, a caregiver that Anthony thinks resembles another daughter named Susan. Is this the caretaker who stole the watch? Zeller doesn’t bother to explain, nor should he. Those who have seen the many versions of his stageplay will know what’s happening, but those less familiar may need time to get a handle on all of the twists and turns as Anthony’s reality begins to crumble, and he reacts in the only way he knows how, by lashing out.
The genius of Zeller’s approach is that, for all of the chaos he introduces, there’s nothing that feels heightened or over-the-top about it. Anthony is slowly losing his ability to tell people, places, and things apart, made worse by a loss of time. He no longer knows when things are happening, and neither do we. But we have the information to glean certain things for ourselves, which is why we’re left off-balance when that information gets twisted.
For a story that is actually quite sad, figuring out what is happening adds a bit of a fun thriller element to it. That said, for a movie that is only about 90-minutes long, Zeller overloads it with a dizzying amount of red herrings. Furthermore, his inexperience as a feature film director shows by keeping the story confined to essentially one location. While this might work on the stage, such emotionally heavy material can feel a little dry without being given sufficient room to breathe. Just take a look at Regina King’s One Night in Miami , also a stage-to-screen adaptation, as an example of the impact creating space can have in adding some energy to really tough, talk-heavy drama.
Hopkins and Colman will receive much of the attention, and rightly so, for performances that keep you hooked from beginning to end. I think it’s easy to forget just how good Hopkins is, but that’ll change when you see the fear and frustration behind Anthony’s eyes. It’s a role that has Hopkins capturing Anthony’s ferocity, which would make him unlikable if he also wasn’t so sympathetic. And Colman, whose Anne can barely hide her own exasperation, which we know is probably informed by decades of Anthony’s tough love.
Watching someone we love grow old is something everyone has to deal with, but seeing them go through dementia, to no longer be the person they used to be, is truly devastating. So much of who we are is based on our memories, and the way the people we’re close to perceive us. When those things are gone, what is really left of us? The Father is a sorrowful, tough film, and it’ll hit home to those who are personally dealing with the same issues. For all of its heft, Zeller does little to draw distance from its stage roots, shutting the door on any chance of it to thrive.
The Father is available in select theaters beginning February 26th, before moving to PVOD on March 26th.