The Father (2020)
It’s hard to imagine any audience describing The Father (2020) as entertaining. Gripping and emotionally harrowing are more accurate words to describe this towering Oscar-winning performance by Anthony Hopkins. Over and above its cinematic achievements, this film puts you directly into the mind of someone whose awareness of self and others is fading into darkness.
While the film’s narrative arc is simple, the storyline is complex and convoluted. Once a successful engineer, cantankerous 80-year old Anthony (Anthony Hopkins) is losing his memory and increasingly unable to relate to those around him. His loving daughter Anne (Olivia Coleman) struggles to find a day carer who can tolerate his insults and sacrifices much to keep him at home rather than in institutional care. The entire film is framed around this father and daughter emotional dynamic. What actually happens in traditional storytelling terms is not as important as how the viewer is made to vicariously experience Anthony’s progression towards dementia.
It’s a brave directorial choice to deliberately disorientate viewers. While this is standard fare in many psychological horrors, here it serves the bigger purpose of showing what it feels like to be imprisoned in a deteriorating mind. Non-linear and causally disconnected scenes, inexplicable changes in room décor, and switching actors in key roles, are just some of the devices used to show how the world appears from Anthony’s point of view. This leaves viewers unsure of what is real and what is imagined, while his moods traverse vulnerable, jovial and kind, to belligerent, angry and threatening. In all of them we see a seasoned masterclass in character acting that only a performer of Anthony Hopkin’s stature can bring. Olivia Coleman is an inspired choice as a daughter desperately clinging to a beloved father while his persona unravels before her eyes.
It is one thing to create an emotionally gripping film. It is entirely another to bring a global mental health issue out from the shadows and into the midst of conversations about dementia and aged care. Such conversations need louder voices for change. This film offers an interior portrait of the many ways that dementia can break a sufferer’s grip on reality and this can only help us understand the condition. Without any relief, the story must conclude with sadness. The Father is a film that is both painful to watch and an ultimately rewarding experience.
Director: Florian Zeller
Stars: Anthony Hopkins, Olivia Coleman