Monday, April 12, 2021

The Father is a devastating and thoughtful work


How many times have you seen characters with Alzheimer's, Dementia, or similar conditions in movies? Pretty often. How many times have you seen such characters at the center of the narrative? Probably far less often. Usually, these individuals are relegated to the background to generate turmoil for a significantly younger protagonist. There are thoughtful supporting portrayals of individuals struggling with mental declines. However, the worst of these types of characters reduce to people suffering from very real diseases to just melodramatic props. Writer/director Florian Zeller subverts this norm with The Father, which places a man suffering from dementia at the forefront of the story.

We're introduced to Anthony (Anthony Hopkins), a man in his 80s, having a conversation with his daughter Anne (Olivia Coleman), shortly after Anthony has run off another caregiver. Anne is insistent Anthony needs help. Her father is even more adamant that he needs no assistance navigating his flat. As the story goes on, Anthony's perception of reality begins to shift around. People keep coming and going. The various figures he encounters keep telling him that this isn't his flat. He keeps misplacing his watch. Things aren't right in Anthony's mind and audiences are given a front-row seat to what his psyche is like during The Father.

One of Zeller's most impressive feats as a director here is how he keeps so effectively pulling the rug out from under the viewer. The Father frequently delivers surprises regarding (among other matters) who Anthony is talking to or even if the story is happening in a linear fashion. Rather than just being a repetitive series of "gotcha's!", Zeller always gives these revelations weight. These aren't hollow twists for the sake of having twists, far from it. This gets accomplished because all these unexpected moments are in the service of reflecting what a loose grasp Anthony has on reality. Eventually, the viewer becomes as uncertain of what is and isn't real as Anthony.

This impressive feat is aided by how Zeller doesn't play the movie like something has grand secrets waiting in the wings. The Father is largely a chamber piece relying on just a handful of room and a small set of characters. In these intimate confines, one gets so wrapped up in the conversations these characters are sharing that your mind is concentrated on what they're saying rather than thinking of what bombshell Zeller will deliver next. Zeller makes the proceedings gripping enough that you become comfortable with the reality The Father is presenting...then, all of a sudden, something, like a tiny change in the production design or a new person inhabiting Anthony's home, jolts you out of your seat. 

It's engrossing to watch The Father play out its sleight of hand on challenging the viewer's perception of what is and isn't real. It's made all the more captivating by the fact that the film smartly leans heavily on a lead performance from Anthony Hopkins. At the age of 83, Hopkins shows up here and reminds everyone why he's been an acclaimed performer for decades now. Like the film he inhabits, Hopkins refuses to paint Anthony as just a one-note stereotype defined by his dementia. He's capable of being spry (like in his impromptu tap-dancing session), of being charming, of being cruel, and every emotion in between. This is not a passive figure and Hopkins leans into that to marvelous results. 

With Anthony's condition, you never know what emotion he'll unleash next, which lends a layer of fascinating unpredictability to Hopkins' richly-detailed performance. Even in a career spanning nearly 55 years, the work from Hopkin in The Father stands as one of his greatest achievements as an actor.  Olivia Coleman also proves to be great in her own right in the role of Anne, especially with regards to how she manages to hold her own in the numerous scenes where it's just her and Hopkins. The Father is anchored by these two great performances as well as challenging directorial work, and poignant scenes that cut straight to your heart. Movies have often given elderly individuals with dementia and similar conditions the short-thrift, but that's certainly not the case here with The Father.

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