Review: The Father (Dir. Florian Zeller, 2020)

Over the last 20 years or so there has been an increase in films which have attempted to depict the cruelty of dementia and/or Alzheimer’s detailing aspects of the progressive and often fatal brain disease; from diagnosis to decline. Narratives told from the (adult) children’s perspective (The Savages, 2007), husbands trying to coming to terms with their wives’ diagnoses (Away from Her, 2006), (Iris, 2001) and Amour (2012) and the, then, inevitable gender-switch in A Song for Martin (2001) Robot and Frank (2001) and The Leisure Seeker (2018).

There have been grandfathers in Nebraska (2013) and, Head Full of Honey (2018), grandmothers in Poetry (2010) and women-of-a-certain-age-in-dementia-framed-as-horror (The Taking of Deborah Logan and Relic). Then, Still Alice depicted a young(er) patient in linguistics Professor Alice Howland before French ‘tragi-comedy’ Floride (2015) – the first film to adapt Florian Zeller’s 2012 play Le Père – in which Jean Rochefort and Sandrine Kiberlain embraced the darker comic moments. While films such as A Moment to Remember (2004) and Black (2005), A Separation (2011) and Wrinkles (2011) sought different ways to frame the narrative which can often feel a little derivative.

They have all had their charms, however, few have managed to convey the illness in quite the same way as Zeller’s BAFTA-winning The Father. Adapted from Le Père (screenplay co-authored with Christopher Hampton) which has been staged for theatre the world over, Zeller directs Hopkins in an arguably career-best performance. He’s brilliant in it, certainly on par with Glenda Jackson’s BAFTA and Emmy-Award winning role as Maud in Aisling Walsh’s Elizbeth is Missing.

In the film, he plays Anthony (no longer the André of the stage play), a charismatic octogenarian, living alone but fighting his daughter Anne (Olivia Colman) tooth and nail over the prospect of a live-in nurse. He’s independent and more than capable of caring for himself in his Maida Vale flat, thank you very much. Now if only he could remember where his watch was… The next time we see Anne she is played by Olivia Williams and it takes a beat to realise how and why. We are in Anthony’s world view and it is confusing, utterly disconcerting and often overwhelming. Every time he misplaces his possessions, every moment he shares with people we are unsure are really there and those heart-aching minutes when he can’t even remember that his other daughter Lucy is dead, there we are too.

There’s repetition to each scene made all the more apparent with the one setting – the flat evolves with the subtle movement of some props yet every door leads to somewhere just not always where Anthony expects. We see him as a curmudgeonly old sod determined to assert his patriarchal authority with intense conviction, as a young man attempting to impress Imogen Poots’ care nurse Laura by imbibing scotch and dancing around the room with almost teenage glee and then a little boy as the film edges to its denouement. It’s an astonishing performance by the 83-year-old Welshman.

Yet to only talk of Hopkins could be construed as a disservice to the rest of the cast all of whom are equally wonderful especially Colman (who only has to exhale amid a lip tremble and I well up). However, it is all about the eponymous father. He is our unreliable narrator as he comes to terms with the world around him, as he remembers his children, the location of his watch or not as the case may be. Enveloped by time which idles by or fails to pass at all in his mind. The more agitated Anthony gets the more fragmented his memory becomes yet all these narrative irregularities and incoherencies are beautifully immersive so the audience is never alienated.

The labyrinthian location – regardless of the chasms of Anthony’s mind – means that hallways and doors seem endless, colours muted and interchangeable. This use of the ‘unheimlich’ is often limited to the horror genre but here, is played with astutely. Walls change colour, costumes change at a rapid pace (or remain the same) and space is atmospherically lit. When Anthony is ‘sundowning’, greys and blues make up the palette, medium and long shots position the lead character in the centre of frame, small, lost with items within the mise-en-scène indecipherable in the darkening natural light. At other times, rooms are flooded with sunlight and Anthony is in medium close-up filling the frame, upbeat and somewhat in control.

While purple may be the official colour of the Alzheimer’s movement, blue tends to be the primary colour here, especially costume-wise which could symbolise reliability and trust, even stability and health – all of which are in flux for Anthony or perhaps, the colour of blooming forget-me-nots and melancholia. It may not even be that deep and meaningful, as dementia patients tend to favour blue, red and green and often find blue the most calming.

The Father is a sobering, unsentimental and poignant film offering a brief window into how one man lives with dementia – which is often tragic, often ugly – and the rippling repercussions for his family and care workers. It will strike close to home for many and few will wish to revisit but it is well worth preparing yourself for a one-time watch, if only to see a masterclass in acting.