It’s all too easy to make assumptions about a film from the barest information. Take this film for example, a British drama, starring national treasure royalty Anthony Hopkins and Olivia Colman, with its patriarchal title sounding like a feature rich in family tension, that could possibly lean on the theatrical side somewhat, and come across as a tad pompous and dreary.
But what they say about making assumptions is certainly true in this case, and couldn’t be further from the truth as director Florian Zeller explores the fragile nature of old age in every dark corner in his absorbing debut film.
Living in an extremely lovely flat in London is Anthony (Hopkins). He is of mature years and although physically spritely, his mind is starting to unravel, as dementia seemingly starts to take a hold of it.
This obviously course concern for his daughter Anne (Olivia Colman), who up until now has done the best she can on her own. But they have clearly reached a point where she needs the help of a professional. Unfortunately her father has other ideas, as he’s fervently opposed to the idea have having a carer look after him, and certainly makes his feelings known during interviews.
Anne perseveres, to the point where it looks like her father will accept a candidate, but his condition causes him to struggle with not only the process at hand but with reality itself.
What you’re actually getting with The Father is possibly three films in one, at least. The first, and most obvious, is a skilfully constructed and observed insight into the degeneration of someone’s mind from their perspective. Not only through Hopkins’ remarkable performance, but just as much through Zeller’s striking direction, the film offers audiences a frightening vision of the effects of dementia through the eyes of a sufferer. It captures the fragility and vulnerability that comes with it, and the disorientation that overwhelms them.
It works perfectly on that level too, and yet Zeller cleverly leaves plenty of room for interpretation. There’s also a good case to make for it being a sci-fi, alternative universe themed tale too, as peculiar as that may seem. Although there’s evidence there to suggest that Anthony is indeed suffering from dementia, the film cleverly suggests that perhaps it could be a conspiracy all along, with different characters coming into the story, changing their personas, to try and catch out and confuse their target. And as Anthony could well be also suffering from a mental illness, this could well play into the hands of those around him to get the better of him. The sinister subplot is beautifully understated, and certainly may not pop into everyone’s head, but if you do pick up on it, it only adds to the drama. But don’t be surprised if you come away with a Tales of the Unexpected vibe about it.
The third subplot is far more subtle, and yet it still holds weight. The film overall could loosely be interpreted as a character in limbo, in a waiting room awaiting the go ahead to their final destination. Try as Anthony might, going through the many doors in front of him, they all tend to lead back into a version of his flat, with his next destination clearly not ready for him, despite the frustration this stagnant locale is presenting itself to him. It’s a more cerebral take, but is still in keeping with the film’s overall narrative.
It’s clever how the script can work on so many levels, and surprising for a British drama, and it’s all down to the source material of Zeller’s own play, and his screenplay co-writer, Oscar winner Christopher Hampton, whose previous scripts include Dangerous Liaisons and Atonement. Together they have achieved a remarkable piece of work that is truly gripping from beginning to end.
It certainly says a lot about the film that up until this point its main stars have hardly been mentioned, and it has to be said, they certainly play their parts supremely well. Hopkins is in fine, sharp form with a performance that is curiously edgy and heart-breaking. Colman has less to do, but certainly makes her mark, particularly in the scenes she shares with her leading man. It should also be mentioned that the film has a strong supporting cast that includes Mark Gatiss, Olivia Williams, Rufus Sewell and Imogen Poots, who all add to the swirling drama that takes place.
Zeller himself makes a confident directorial debut, with a striking vision, some remarkable cinematography and even more remarkable furniture – with possibly more displays than an Ikea showroom as the rooms play a prominent part in proceedings, as do doors– and some smart editing.
It doesn’t really matter how you read the film, as you will be blown away by whichever version you see.
The Father combines the very real effects of dementia with deliciously sinister undertones, making it a superbly crafted, often intense experience that’s not to be missed.