My first thought while watching The Father was, “Wow, this was probably fire on the stage.” My thoughts sank, though, as this piece of Oscar bait continued to plod along with zero imagination. The film is directed by Florian Zeller as a faithful English-language adaptation of his own French stage play. Turns out that the “faithful” part of that is exactly the problem.
Anthony Hopkins portrays an elderly British widower and retiree named Anthony who lives alone in his London flat. His daughter Anne (Olivia Colman) drops in periodically to check on him because he’s forgetting things and might be a danger to himself. The play’s coup de théâtre is casting multiple actors as the same character and the same actors as multiple characters. When Olivia Williams walks in and tells the old man that she’s Anne, we feel the same confusion that he must be feeling amid his senile dementia. Anthony hotly refuses to leave his flat, and the set never changes when he’s informed that he’s now living in the apartment owned by Anne and her husband (played alternately by Mark Gatiss and Rufus Sewell).
It’s a neat conceit. The trouble is, it stops there. An experienced novelist, playwright, and theater director, Zeller is making his debut as a film director, and it’s understandable that he’d want to proceed cautiously in a medium that’s new to him. Even so, mon ami, cinema offers all sorts of techniques to depict a character’s altered mental state, and this film uses none of them. We’ve seen so many fresh theatrical translations to the big screen recently like Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom and One Night in Miami that this can’t help but look drab and suffocating by comparison. In vain will you seek a metaphor that brings home the horror of senile dementia in a new way, like the one Relic had this past summer.
All this could be overlooked with superlative performances. No such luck, I’m afraid. Hopkins gives a workaday turn as the patriarch losing his faculties. He’s good enough not to overdo it or beg the audience for sympathy, yet while watching his decline is sad, it’s never searing the way it was with the superior French film Amour. The supporting cast (which also includes Imogen Poots as both a prospective caregiver and Anthony’s dead daughter) is thoroughly muted, too. Oscar voters do have a soft spot for old actors, so it won’t be shocking if The Father snags some nominations this week. It didn’t hit any of my soft spots, though.
Starring Anthony Hopkins and Olivia Colman. Directed by Florian Zeller. Written by Christopher Hampton and Florian Zeller, based on Zeller’s play. Rated PG-13.