The Father: A Review
Florian Zeller’s directorial debut lends us a view into the day-to-day life of a man with dementia, and it is at once devastating and chilling. Originating as a stage play, The Father shows what encounters with dementia look like both as someone with it, and as someone witnessing it, by striking a fine balance between a deft script and temperamental performances by the cast.
In the opening scene, we are introduced to the film’s three main players: Anthony (played by Anthony Hopkins), Anthony’s daughter Ann (played by Olivia Colman), and the apartment, in which most of the film is set in. We get shots of cold, empty rooms, swathed in neutral tones, and it’s the stark sterility of it that forces us to keep an eye on it. Because so much of the runtime is spent inside the apartment, we become rooted in it, stuck watching from the outside within, as Anthony loses thread of what’s going on around him.
From there on out, Zeller sets out the plot in a straightforward manner—except it isn’t straightforward at all. The dominoes are laid out slowly and carefully. Characters weave in and out of the apartment and, hence, Anthony’s mind, and each time they do, we hold our breaths, waiting to see if they’d be the one to topple them over. Zeller gives us little time to get acquainted with the new characters, driving home the fact that Anthony doesn’t know who they are, or what they mean to his life. He doesn’t know them, so we don’t know them. We meet a younger Ann (Olivia Williams), Ann’s husband Paul (Mark Gatiss), and a new caretaker, Laura (Imogen Poots), who suspiciously looks a lot like Anthony’s second and absent daughter. But it’s with the second iteration of Paul (now played by Rufus Sewell) that the film takes a turn—what started off as an ordinary story of an old man with dementia becomes a psychological rabbit hole. This is emphasised by the script: where the appearances of characters are random, the script, on the other hand, relies on loops and repetitions. One particular scene utilises this, in which Ann and Paul argue about sending Anthony to a nursing home, but are interrupted by his arrival, proceeding to quietly have a chicken dinner—and then do it all over again. With the script, the film feels like a game of spot the difference: Was this mentioned before? Will I need to remember where this is?
But this to me is where the film starts to fall a little short. At times, it feels too polished, the routine of Anthony understanding one thing and this understanding immediately being contradicted by a new thing starts to feel tired. This shortcoming, however, is remedied by the performances. One cannot talk about The Father without mentioning the performances—the lead actors, Hopkins and Colman, are, after all, nominated at the Oscars this year. Hopkins delivers a charged performance, slowly peeling away layers to his character with every scene. He is coarse one minute, an almost pollyanna the next, and even displays some boyish charm in his first meeting with Laura. Colman’s performance, on the other end, is understated. She quietly moves from scene to scene, with the occasional crack in her caring facade that shows her on the brink of succumbing to her own desires. Together, their scenes tug at the heartstrings—and, on occasion, at tear ducts.
The Father has managed to accumulate six nominations to its name with its clean cut depiction of dementia. Come April 25th, and I am eager to see what the Academy thinks of it.