Although it’s not written to be a horror movie, Florian Zeller’s The Father crafts a story that is sure to strike at the heart of many who fear the possibility of dementia. Based on Zeller’s own 2012 play Le Père, The Father follows an old octogenarian as he struggles with memory loss and his slow transition out of his London flat. Although much of the strength of the film lies in Anthony Hopkins’ lead performance alongside Olivia Colman, Zeller’s direction is nothing to sniff at.
The Father offers a unique point of view when it comes to its main character, also named Anthony. What starts as a normal day in his life soon twists and turns into confusion. The film is told specifically from Anthony’s point of view, which is what makes it so disorienting. One minute Olivia Colman’s Anne is coming home after buying groceries, the next minute she’s leaving for Paris. Colman’s performance as Anthony’s daughter is warm and loving but it’s impossible not to feel some of the burden she takes on when she becomes her father’s caretaker.
Weaved into the puzzle pieces of this plot is Rufus Sewell’s Paul, Anne’s husband of many years. Less tolerant of Anthony, his concern is for his wife. Although there are some particularly insidious scenes with Paul, he isn’t the villain of the story. The villain is Anthony’s failing memory. Fading in and out of time, The Father actually warrants multiple rewatches as the story feels like you’re not only jumping around a timeline but also around realities. People’s identities change, their ages change, the time of day changes, even the set, which feels so stolid, shifts ever so slightly.
Zeller is subtle in most of these changes, making you question where and when you are. Was there a painting there? Was the couch different? Wasn’t it a sunny morning, not an afternoon? Anthony isn’t alone in his confusion when the camera pans around the familiar-yet-different London flat. This isn’t meant to keep you on your toes, this is mean to put you in a situation where you are forced to question everything. What is your reality when your own family members look like strangers to you?
Hopkins absolutely shines in this, undoubtedly his best performance in the last few years. Vacillating between fragile and determined, you feel more than injustice at Anthony’s treatment but also ample fear. This is where the horror aspects come in. There is an inescapable reality with The Father. Not only is mortality a fear, but the toll that his dementia takes on him and his family become stifling. It makes brief moments of clarity poignantly painful. Hopkins’ scenes with the warm and loving Colman are heartbreaking. Despite best efforts, fighting the disease is a losing battle.
The Father isn’t a film made to make you feel good. It’s one that will make you think about your life, especially the older people in your life who might suffer from similar syndromes. It forces you to face a harrowing reality while also creating a stage for magnificent performances from its cast. It’s not hard to see why this has become a magnet for the 2020 award season.
The Father is in theaters today and comes to PVOD on March 26th!