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Anthony Hopkins loses his sense of self in "The Father."

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.

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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.

The Father
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.

2 COMMENTS

  1. That’s right. It is dreary. Because it intends to make you understand exactly what dementia looks like and feels like. No visual tricks. No dazzle or magic. We do not live cinematic reality. We live reality. It is not meant to make anyone feel good. What this film does that no other film about mental illness has done is put the audience into the reality of a dementia sufferer. You see through his brain. You know only what he knows. You recall only what he recalls. You get to experience the deterioration of a mind and how terrifying it can be. What for? How about compassion for one thing. What this film taught me is to never again say, “Don’t you remember?”, or “What are you talking about?” to a person with dementia. Non-dementia people seem to think they can knock sense into a person with dementia. If you badger them enough they will start to reason again. No. What we have to do is understand how their mind works and respond to their reality. This is something we ALL need to know and it is the best of what great drama can do. Sorry it spoiled your fun. But dementia does that to the sufferer and those who have to care for them. Chances are high you will be one of those in your lifetime. So it’s good to learn.

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