Florian Zeller's ingenious screen translation of his own stage play offers a terrifying insight into the realities of living with dementia
It’s hard to imagine a situation more disconcerting than turning a corner in your own apartment and finding a room you don’t recognise, with a man you’ve never met sat there, drinking a cup of tea without a care in the world. Florian Zeller’s The Father makes its home in these upsetting, confusing moments, launching its audience into the headspace of a man struggling against severe, worsening dementia and the terror that this disease brings.
Anthony Hopkins puts in a tour de force – and now BAFTA-winning – performance as Anthony, whose deteriorating mental health and frequent arguments with his carers have forced him to move in with his daughter Anne (Olivia Colman, also great), with the prospect of a nursing home rarely far from his mind. It’s a state of affairs he often forgets he's in, mistaking Anne’s house for his own, and sometimes even unable to recognise his daughter.
Hopkins plays this fear, and the anger that Anthony hides behind as a defence mechanism, brilliantly. It’s as vulnerable a performance as he’s ever given, and though can see the whirrings of Anthony’s mind as he tries to remember what he’s forgotten or keep up with conversations, Hopkins makes sure to retain an edge. Anthony is clearly not a very nice man, and the occasional surfacings of his older, “healthy” personality are laced with a discomforting venom that forces you to re-examine your sympathies. It’s the kind of performance that has received deserved awards-season adoration, yet manages to avoid melodrama almost entirely, one of the very best pieces of acting in Hopkins's storied career.
Zoller (adapting his own play alongside screenwriter Christopher Hampton) doesn’t just sit back and let Hopkins do the work. Instead he brings Anthony’s dementia to life with a consistently inventive bag of stylistic and structural tricks. He shifts the layout and aesthetic of Anne’s flat to disorienting effect, whether it’s a painting disappearing and re-emerging or the kitchen shrinking or doors that Anthony assume lead to the living room instead opening into a doctor’s office. Characters are played by different actors depending on how lucid Anthony is – Anne’s husband Paul is played by Rufus Sewell on Anthony’s good days, Mark Gatiss on his bad ones – and scenes that we witness happening through Anthony’s eyes are later discounted by Anne as fabrications.
It’s incredibly distressing for the viewer, so one can only imagine how frightening it is for Anthony, allowing for a deep well of empathy, an immersive deep dive into dementia that humanises and makes comprehensible an illness that can be very alienating. It also helps keep The Father from ever feeling stagey, giving a vitality and sense of purpose that a lot of play adaptations lack. While the limited locations and tiny cast give away The Father’s theatrical origins, it never shies away from being distinctly cinematic.
Not everything works, with the insistently funereal soundtrack being too heavy handed and some sluggish pacing setting in during the last 20 minutes, but for the most part this is an object lesson in how to bring a small-scale play to the screen, bolstered by a mesmerising performance from one of our greatest living actors.
The Father will be released in UK cinemas on 11 June 2021. It is already available to stream in the US.Where to watch