Florian Zeller brilliantly adapted his touching play, Le Père, into a deeply emotional film starring Anthony Hopkins and Olivia Colman. Hopkins’ character, also named Anthony, is a man in his 80s who is also struggling with dementia. Colman plays her desperate daughter, Anne, trying to take care of her father as he loses touch with the life around him.
Zeller does quite a few things extraordinarily well in his film adaptation; among these, the choice to situate the audience directly in Anthony’s perspective. Often, in films that deal with mental health conditions, we see the affected characters from the outside in. We are put in the shoes of the grieving family, who get to experience the horrible process of losing a loved one to a disease such as dementia or Alzheimer. The first and most prominent film that comes to mind when I think about this is Still Alice (2014), starring Julianne Moore as a woman and her family dealing with her slow descent into Alzheimer’s disease. It’s definitely a tearjerker, but also a pretty brilliant one featuring Moore at the height of her powers.
For me, it’s this perspective shift that makes The Father such a unique and affecting film worth to watch. Both Zeller’s screenplay and Hopkins’ performance made me feel a different level of empathy towards Anthony. Whereas in other films I would be caught in the surrounding family’s emotions and overall experience, Zeller makes sure that we know exactly how Anthony is experiencing his day-to-day life. As faces constantly change for him, both Anthony and the audience start to lose sense and logic out of the storyline. By the first 15 minutes, we aren’t sure who is who and what is reality. It sounds incredibly stressful on paper and that’s because it totally is.
Not helping at all is the fact that Anthony resists all kind of help from Anne and the nurses she brings to her home, where Anthony is now living. We learn that the apartment is actually owned by Anne later on into the film, because Anthony is constantly claiming that he’ll never leave “his flat”. This is only one of the many narrative choices taken by Zeller that creates confusion and disorientation, giving the audience a hefty idea of Anthony’s life. I have nothing but high praise for this screenplay, which works on many levels, leaving no untied ends even with its sea of contradicting facts and happenings. Without a doubt, Zeller has written one of 2020’s best screenplays.
Hopkins, at 83 years, delivers a career-best performance in The Father. And that’s coming from the person who played Dr. Hannibal Lecter in The Silence of the Lambs (1995) and won the Oscar with only about 16 minutes of screen-time. Not one time during the entire runtime did I feel like Hopkins was lacking determination. He is fully immersed in his character, and it suits him in all the right ways. Anthony is confused, scared, charming at times and angry with his situation throughout the film, and Hopkins never lets go of those feelings.
Colman is yet another brilliant addition here. I’ve been a huge fan since I first saw her as Queen Anne (yes, she’s also named Anne) in Yorgos Lanthimos’ The Favourite (2018) and later as Godmother in Phoebe Waller-Bridge’s terrific miniseries Fleabag. I have to say The Father is just another addition to her array of amazing performances. She’s technically a supporting character but still manages to leave a heavy-hitting impression. I specially admire all the scenes in which Colman fights off the tears whenever Anne truly gets a brief glimpse into her father’s deteriorating condition.
I usually don’t complain when movies are too short; it can be a very good quality. I also understand that given the emotions this film carries that Zeller didn’t want to do a three-hour version of this story. Although, I would’ve loved to get a bit more out of Anthony’s character and his past. We get some clues, and it really isn’t that crucial given what the message is. Still, I expected to get some transition and change in character so to make it a little more impactful.
The Father’s story revolves around the last moments of a man struggling with dementia, there is no other way around it. With so few characters and locations, there isn’t much room for inclusivity. I still think that Colman’s character is perfectly written and portrayed, giving Anne a voice and a perspective to which I could relate completely.
The Father is a deep exploration of a terrible disease, and how it particularly affects the lives of its two main characters. It’s thanks to Zeller’s screenplay that the story becomes something unique. Hopkins delivers a truly heartbreaking performance that approaches his all-time best and Olivia Colman shines once again proving she is one her generation’s best actresses.