Photo | “The Father” – Trademark Films
Anthony Hopkins is such a legend it’s hard to imagine he achieved one of his greatest performances in 2020, but that is exactly what he does in Best Picture nominee “The Father,” a tender, heartbreaking portrait of a man struggling with dementia. It is not just Hopkins’ performance as the father (Anthony), but the subtly destabilizing depiction of his mental state that makes this film more than just an emotional drama about a relatable subject. There are moments when it is a horror film — never gory, never bloody, but so unsettling that you are left shocked.
Directed by Florian Zeller and based on his stage play, the screenplay was co-adapted by Christopher Hampton, a legend in his own right for writing “Dangerous Liaisons” and “Atonement.” They have created some quietly astonishing “special effects” to capture the disorientation Anthony is experiencing, not with CGI but with just changes in interiors, costumes and casting.
Olivia Colman (“The Crown”) plays Anthony’s daughter, Anne, and as usual, she is brilliant but vulnerable. So often cast as a queen, here, Colman suffers greatly from her father’s deteriorating condition, and since a frequently mentioned second daughter is never there, all of the responsibility falls on her. The absent daughter is always described by Anthony as his favorite, and the comparison never fails to slay Anne. The qualities that serve her father so well as she cares for him — like sobriety and calm, steadfast devotion — are also what make her less interesting to him.
The emotional depths of “The Father” are profound, and the characters bring their memories out vividly. The way events from the past continue to live all around is really powerful. For Anthony, who is increasingly lost in the past, memory can be beautiful or terrifying. In one moment, Anne is visiting Anthony at his London flat. Without warning — to Anthony or the audience — he walks into his living room and it isn’t his anymore. And there is a man there he doesn’t know.
Mark Gatiss (“Sherlock”) plays an ever-changing, unnamed man, who sometimes cajoles and sometimes berates Anthony. Sometimes he is Anne’s husband and sometimes he is a nurse. Anne is occasionally replaced by Olivia Williams (“An Education”), who also appears in different roles. Subtle changes in the kitchen and furniture tip us off that we are in a different moment in time.
Instead of scenery-chewing melodrama, “The Father” disarms the viewer with its sleights of hand. Anthony’s changes in mood are even more devastating. He was living in his own flat with a visiting nurse until he snaps and insults her, a turn of events I think will be painfully familiar to many viewers. And in the search for a solution, a new caregiver, Laura (Imogen Poots), is interviewed.
Anthony is charmed by her and in turn charms her, with tap dancing and whisky, all the while flatteringly comparing her to that ever-present, never-seen, favorite daughter. But in the blink of an eye, he insults Laura, and Anthony is as chilling as Hannibal Lecter ever was. Colman is equally brilliant in her nuanced portrayal of Anne; you can see a lifetime of insecurity in her face when her father expresses surprise she has a boyfriend. When you see the role her father played in her own divorce, you feel it even more.
“The Father” is also on the short side, and that is good, because it is a sometimes difficult journey and, like every other aspect of this masterful film, its brevity keeps it from becoming overwrought. The complexities of having someone you love become so confused they do not recognize you or they start to be cruel to you is such a fraught state, with so many contradictions. The conflicts on Anthony’s and Anne’s sides are depicted with an understanding of the oceans of experiences beneath every little word and action.
The script is as tight and brilliant as it can be, and those tricks with the casting and other details are uncanny. In the way that the production design and details captured the deaf experience in “Sound of Metal,” “The Father” has reproduced Anthony’s disorientation and how the most familiar things can be the most disturbing when he cannot trust them anymore. When he says “something strange is going on,” it could be out of a science-fiction film, and every scene in this emotional film creates a world that is both recognizable and alien at the same time.
“The Father” is now playing at the Crescent Theater.
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