“The Father” -Whose life is it, anyway? [MOVIE REVIEW]

Anthony Hopkins as Anthony in THE FATHER. Photo by Sean Gleason. Courtesy of Sony Pictures Classics

“The Father,” a trip down no-memory lane, started life as one of Florian Zeller’s character plays. This powerful piece focusing on the steep descent into dementia has been brought to the screen in a translation by Christopher Hampton, with the screenplay written by Hampton and Zeller featuring Zeller in his directorial debut. Like the other Zeller plays I have seen, The Mother and Height of the Storm, “The Father” was written as a tour de force usually focusing on one person. Actors are always eager to perform in his plays because of the power and pyrotechnics of his characters. Audiences have a more mixed reaction, which is sometimes the case in this film, because he writes very little structure to frame the story. I do believe he is deliberate in this but it does cause a bit of frustration because it pulls focus from the central dilemma. In this case, an elderly man who is confused in time and sequence has lost his sense of the familiar.

Placing the viewer within the mind of the main character, Anthony, we are on his roller coaster as he dissolves into an imagination that sees his daughter Anne first as one person then as another. The men to whom she may or may not have been married also enter the picture carrying on seemingly cogent conversations with him, primarily about the state of his mind; or rather the unstate of his mind.

Like many suffering from dementia, Anthony has devolved into a cruelty that is aimed primarily at his daughter Anne who has sacrificed much in order to care for him. Scathing to the caregivers she has hired, no one will stay with him. At every opportunity he lets Anne know that he prefers her sister, a mysteriously absent presence, and that he can’t understand what she is doing in his home —or is it her home?

Olivia Colman as Anne, Anthony Hopkins as Anthony in THE FATHER. Photo by Sean Gleason. Courtesy of Sony Pictures Classics.

Zeller has populated Anthony’s imagination with Anne’s ex-husband Paul, as well as an alternate universe Anne and husband. But in every circumstance, no matter the people, real or imaginary, present or past, his cruelty shines through. That it cuts Anne to the bone is obvious but equally evident is that there must have been a solid and loving relationship between them in the past or she would not have tried so hard to keep him under her wing.

Frank Langella won a Tony on Broadway for his portrayal of “The Father,” and there should be no doubt that Anthony Hopkins playing that role on the screen will be at the forefront of actors vying for an Oscar for “best actor.” He is magnificent in his state of confusion and the one in which he puts us. That his performance shies away from desperation to steadfast assurance, always quick with the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune aimed at his daughter is a tribute to his skill. He is still able to generate sympathy for his character without falling into the trap of playing to the illness.

Olivia Colman is perfect as his wounded daughter Anne. Even in her state of frustration and agony, you can read in her eyes the love she had for the man who is no longer there. Rufus Sewell as her husband/ex-husband Paul is stunning in his directness. He makes you wonder if the father wasn’t the reason for the marriage break up, one that is apparently long in the past. Olivia Williams and Mark Gatiss as the alternate reality family members, are so good they have you questioning your grip on reality.

“The Father” is remarkably good. Although Zeller’s writing still falls into the trap of substance and no structure, he has directed it deftly and created a glimpse into a world that is all too familiar to those of us who have had parents with dementia. And to those who haven’t, it is sadly realistic without a happy ending, a maze without a beginning or finish.

Opening February 26 at  and on PVOD on March 26.

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Written by: Neely Swanson

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