Florian Zeller’s “The Father” is not the dementia drama one might expect. Rather than deliver anything treacly or maudlin, the French playwright, adapting his own play for his directorial debut, has crafted an M.C. Escher-esque looping maze of the mind on screen, placing the audience directly within the point-of-view of dementia itself. This lived experience is beautifully, and heartbreakingly, expressed by star Anthony Hopkins, playing a man named Anthony who is grappling with his disintegrating reality and unreliable memories.
Zeller places us inside Anthony’s head right away, via the opera music that he listens to on headphones inside his perfectly appointed flat. This flat, filled with art and music, soon becomes an impossible puzzle box. As a viewer, one must strain to place everything within space and time. The heavy black front door remains a constant, but everything else, including the people within, soon become slippery, mysterious and untrustworthy.
The other characters who slip and slide around this flat include Anthony’s daughter Anne (Olivia Colman) and her husband Paul (Rufus Sewell). In the first scene, Anne informs Anthony that she’s moving to Paris with a new beau. Or is she? Later, she denies it. The urgent task at hand for Anne, struggling to care for her father in this state, is finding a new caretaker, as Anthony has burned through several already. They interview a new candidate, Laura (Imogen Poots), whom Anthony charms with whiskey and tap dancing. Anne and Paul and Anthony have roast chicken for dinner. But when? Nothing is quite what it seems, and these events loop in a nonlinear fashion, like a strange, disjointed “Groundhog Day.” Sometimes Paul is someone else (Mark Gatiss), sometimes Anne is someone else (Olivia Williams). Sometimes Laura’s resemblance to Anthony’s other daughter, Lucy, is too much to bear. Also, is the flat now painted blue?
“The Father” unfolds in conversations that play out in real time, during which Hopkins demonstrates his incredible ability to slide from imperious to temperamental to terrified to achingly vulnerable. The powerful control of tone and emotion that Hopkins displays is akin to his legendary performance of Hannibal Lecter, but instead of a manipulative psychopath, Anthony is desperately humane, trying — and failing — to grasp onto his last shreds of authority, identity and memory. It’s the transitions between the conversations that are tricky, revealing the loose ties to time and reality that trouble his mind and existence within this space.
Sometimes “The Father” unfolds like a psychological thriller, with Ludovico Einaudi’s score turning ominous. The suspicion of a nefarious plot, rather than cognitive decline, lingers at the edges of consciousness, calling to mind the Ingrid Bergman classic “Gaslight.” The unpredictable environment isn’t just confusing, but outright deceitful at times. This is the genius of Zeller’s labyrinthine filmmaking: in placing the audience in this vulnerable, questioning position, through sound design, camera movement and perspective, we empathize deeply with Anthony’s plight, the lack of control and sheer terror he feels — and masks — with anger and abuse.
Hopkins allows the vulnerability to peek through Anthony’s behavior, almost throwing it away at times, like the way he distractedly picks at a throw blanket while describing the way his young daughter used to call him “Little Daddy.” It builds slowly, to an incredibly moving climax. In this unprecedented, educative and deeply empathetic depiction of dementia on screen, it’s fascinating to watch the way Hopkins and Zeller demonstrate control over the storytelling of a film that is ultimately about the the slow, agonizing loss of control over one’s own mind.
3.5 stars (out of 4)
Cast: Anthony Hopkins, Olivia Colman, Rufus Sewell, Imogen Poots, Mark Gatiss, Olivia Williams
Directed by Florian Zeller
Running time: 1 hour, 37 minutes
Rated: PG-13 (for some strong language, and thematic material)
Playing: In theaters now; available March 26 on PVOD platforms
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