I knew nothing of this film in advance, apart from the fact that it concerned dementia and that Anthony Hopkins has been widely acclaimed as having given one of his best performances ever. If you haven’t seen the film, I think it’s best to stay in blissful ignorance about most of its content so that it’s endless shocks and surprises hit you with all possible force. However, if you have seen it, or are prepared to risk reading more about it in advance – please continue!
There’s nothing Florian Zeller likes more than to deceive his audience. A few years ago we saw two of his plays at the Menier Chocolate Factory, The Truth and The Lie, both ridiculously entertaining plays involving deceit between couples but also leading the audience up several garden paths with hardly any way of knowing which is the right one. And now Florian Zeller has directed his own 2012 play The Father for a cinema audience; so the one thing you can be sure of is that you can be sure of nothing.
What you can reasonably assume is that Anthony has dementia and his daughter is trying to find a way for him to receive the best care treatment possible. Anything beyond that, and you’re straying into the world of the uncertain. But the delightful (if that’s the right word) web of confusion that the film weaves gives us a brilliant, albeit awe-inspiringly tragic, insight into Anthony’s true lived experience. After sleeping on it, I decided on my own interpretation of what was real and what was not. My interpretation is that the first scene is true; Anthony has dismissed his carer Angela in a whirlwind of insults and accusations, and daughter Anne says they have to find a better solution for his care, as she will be moving to Paris to live with her new partner, and will no longer be able to pop around all the time. The last scene is also true; Anthony is now living in a care home, with a kind nurse Catherine to look after him and take him for walks in the park. Everything in between is the mass of confusion in Anthony’s mind as he copes with (or fails to cope with) moving from his flat into the home.
This superb film can trigger a strong emotional response. Whether it is because of pent-up frustrations leading from months of lockdown, or because it reminded me of my own mother’s descent into dementia I’m not sure (I suspect the latter), but once the film had finished I had massive tears in my eyes, and, once out back on the street, I confess I bawled my heart out for about five minutes. So be warned!
The screenplay is perfect – Zeller in collaboration with his frequent partner/translator Christopher Hampton – and contains so many of the tell-tale phrases and obsessions of a dementia patient, such as “so you’re abandoning me” and being convinced that their possessions are being stolen. And the use of music is brilliantly integrated into the film, particularly the frequent repetition of what was presumably one of Anthony’s favourite pieces, Je Croix Entendre Encore from Bizet’s Pearl Fishers – an aria appropriately about memory and recollecting distant moments of love. I also admired the fact that the film told its story fully and compactly, all within the space of 1 hour 35 minutes, continuing to prove that old adage, that brevity is indeed the soul of wit.
Without question, Sir Anthony Hopkins is absolutely at the top of his game with his portrayal of his namesake Anthony, a wonderful mixture of the irascible and the helpless; the kind of character who can sometimes “present well” when trying to make a jolly impression on his new carer, who carries on regardless when a circumstance arises that clearly makes absolutely no sense to him, who can lash out with vicious verbal spite and cruelty, and who can dwindle away into infantile crying – the perfect representation of Shakespeare’s Seventh Age of Man, in fact.
The ever-reliable Olivia Colman is also excellent as the much put-upon but kindly Anne; her eyes conveying all the love in the world for her dear old father even though she knows that caring for him is both beyond her capability and also not what she wants from life. Rufus Sewell, Imogen Poots, Olivia Williams and Mark Gatiss all give strong supporting performances, drifting in and out of his life, and not always as the same character.
A hugely impactful, stunning film. Whilst there is always a kind of gallows humour to be found in dealing with dementia, if you’re expecting a lot of laugh out loud moments, you’ll be disappointed. Instead it offers you a remarkable insight into the tragedy of a jumbled mind; don’t forget the Kleenex.