The Father (2021)
Updated: May 14
The film effectively plumbs down the depth of a mind losing its grip on reality.
French playwright and novelist Florian Zeller makes his cinematic debut with an adaptation of his own play. Le Père (The Father) is considered one of the best plays of the last decade. Even before one watches The Father, it can be considered a wonder because, in the age of demographic obsessed Hollywood where most projects are made keeping the young in mind, this is a film that centers on an 81-year old. That the film is an exploration of his slowly disintegrating mind is another challenge.
I assume that the film's chances of getting made increased considerably when Anthony Hopkins got on board along with the British veteran (and Best Actress Academy Award winner in 2018), Olivia Colman.
There is a project by musician The Caretaker (nee James Leyland Kirby) that tries to musically express a mind losing itself to dementia. There are snatches of old ballroom music layered with thick reverb and tape crackle that seem to progressively intensify rendering a haunting quality to its music. Songs abruptly cut-off emulating dangerously flexible synapses that can cut off without warning. It is a challenging and, at times, appropriately terrifying world that suggests a mind trying to remember, place and hold on to fading memories.
The images that the music of The Caretaker evoked in my mind were of Jack Torrance dancing in a lonely, crumbling hotel with a naked rotting corpse. Now they are shared, if not replaced, with Hopkins' roaming a corridor, in a loop while humming arias such as Bellini's 'Casta Diva'
Just when you think you have a grasp of Hopkins' situation, Zeller pulls the rugs from under your feet to leave you confused. And this happens repeatedly until the viewer begins to question who is who? Who is the real daughter? Colman or Olivia Williams? Who is her husband, Mark Gattis or Rufus Sewell? Are they really abusive towards the aging man? The more the narrative gets confusing, the more illuminating it is of Anthony's mental condition. We are not just experiencing this as outsiders, but we get to experience his disorientation through superbly orchestrated scenes that double back on themselves and become an inescapable time-loop. I am also reminded of Natalie Erika James' excellent 2020 horror film Relic. It would make a great companion piece to this film (if someone was willing to go on that kind of a dark tour). But what makes the film even more special is that for Zeller, this is not just a bag of tricks a la A Beautiful Mind, that came across as derivative and simplistic.
Throughout its running time, Zeller undercuts the film's formal pleasures of staging with a devastating revelation about this man's mind. It is as if, he feels guilty of trying to derive genre thrills from a man's declining mental stage. There no need for a Christopher Plummer character here telling people to "imagine how he must feel", we are, in a way, living in the man's mind.
Slightly less affecting are the portions that cut away from this pattern and tell things through the daughter's eyes. It is Colman's performance that does the heavy-lifting here, capturing the fear, hurt, guilt, and embarrassment of dealing with a mentally ill relative whom she is planning to leave for a new life.
It would be fair to say that Hopkins owns his role. The film was written with him in mind and even though his staring-into-space schtick is now old, he finds moving new depths here in depicting the erosion of this character's personality. By the end, Hopkins, the actor has completely dissolved into Anthony, the character. I cannot claim to have seen all the performances nominated at this year's Academy Awards, but solely on its own merits, I am not surprised that this won the Best Actor award.
The Father does not seem to have any point other than Old Age Sucks but it is a point made with imagination, empathy, and skill.