REVIEW: The Father (AFI Fest 2020)
While several films have movingly depicted dementia and Alzheimer’s disease, including Iris (2001) and Still Alice (2014), they have mainly considered it from the viewpoint of family members, who are having to cope with seeing someone they love slowly disappear before their eyes. What Florian Zeller’s play The Father does – which I saw at the Pasadena Playhouse in the before-times (February of this year), starring Alfred Molina – is entirely centre the point-of-view of the person with the disease. Now Zeller has recruited Christopher Hampton (writer of one of the all-time great stage-to-screen adaptations – Dangerous Liaisons) to co-write the screenplay for the film of The Father, this time starring Anthony Hopkins. Zeller has directed the film itself, which is a good thing, because the play is so precisely structured, it could easily have come unraveled in the wrong hands.
The attention that is given to The Father, certainly in terms of awards, will undoubtedly centre around Hopkins’ performance, which is understandable. However, I would love for its writing and editing to be considered as just as worthy, because this film is not a run-of-the-mill sentimental drama stuffed full of award-winning actors. What Zeller has constructed here is masterful and there is no hand-holding of the audience in the way the narrative unfolds, the audience will gradually realise what is happening and be forced to keep up. Because of this, the less said about what actually happens in the film, the better really. I will say that when I saw the play, I felt like I was losing my mind and this is entirely the intended effect.
Zeller firmly places the audience in an empathetic position with Anthony (Hopkins). You will start to question everything you’re seeing and hearing and it’s similar to watching the protagonist of a noir or Gothic-inspired film being gaslit. You will lose trust in the other characters, you will become angry and frustrated, you will certainly be confused, you will feel as if your perception of reality has become unmoored.
It goes without saying that Hopkins is incredible. At age 82, to put in a performance like this must have required an insane amount of mental strength, concentration and memory, which is a feat of endurance, quite apart from the subtleties required that make it so good. If he doesn’t win the Oscar, there will be an awful lot of hat-eating going around, that’s for sure. The supporting cast of Olivia Colman, Rufus Sewell, Olivia Williams, Mark Gatiss and Imogen Poots are all fantastic as well. Colman as Anthony’s daughter, Anne is predictably heart-breaking, as someone desperately trying to do the right thing for her Dad, while his social filters come away. He no longer beats around the bush about the fact that she is not his favourite daughter, nor does he hold back when commenting on her love life. Imogen Poots is one of the highlights of this film, as she often is and I wish she’d been in it a little more. In the play, Williams and Poots’ “characters” are played by the same actress and I’m not sure why that was changed for the film.
The production design plays a subtle but important role here as well, with sightlines down long corridors and views through closing doors offering glimpses of people and places we aren’t sure are there or not. In this sense, it is reminiscent of Natalie Erika James’ horror film Relic, which is out in the UK this week. In that, the house becomes a hostile environment for an elderly woman who can no longer trust her internal or external space. There are certainly elements of The Father which play like a horror film, with the constant capsizing of Anthony’s worldview and the rug frequently being pulled out from under both him and us. It has more in common with genre cinema than the traditional Oscar-bait drama. Zeller and Hopkins do an extremely good job of reigning in the sappiness that certainly could have saturated this entire affair. This means that when the heart-wrenching moments do come, especially at the end, they are all the more effective.
The Father is an exemplary stage-to-screen adaptation, with an actor still at the top of his game at the centre of it. The screenplay is an intricate puzzle box which is ingenious at what it reveals and what it withholds at carefully paced intervals, supported by the precisely-timed editing. Any expectations you may have of a boring or maudlin experience will be blown away once you see this film. A remarkable achievement from all involved.