A masterpiece: Rosie Boycott reviews 'The Father'
Image: Courtesy of Lionsgate UK
Inducing deeply unhappy memories of my own father, Anthony Hopkins dominates the screen in a portrayal of dementia that literally gave me goose bumps
It’s an age old plot: elderly father slithers towards mental oblivion and caring daughter moves heaven and earth to try to keep his world on track while making valiant efforts to prevent her own life from tipping into disaster. There have been several films with this oh-so-familiar bleak story line, but Anthony Hopkins’ portrayal of dementia is the first I have seen that literally gave me chills and goose bumps, inducing deeply unhappy memories of my own father.
From the outset, Hopkins dominates the screen. We meet him as Anthony, a fit 80-something, living in a large London mansion block flat. The movie opens with the arrival of Anne, Anthony’s daughter (a brilliant Olivia Colman) who is awash with concern – and a touch of anger – about her father’s decision to sack his third “carer” that morning. She tells him she is moving to Paris – as she has met a man she loves – and that he has to have a responsible person to look after him. Hopkins is initially puzzled, then distressed, telling her the carer has stolen his watch. When she leaves, he hears a noise and finds Mark Gatiss reading a newspaper in his living room: who are you? he asks, I’m Anne’s husband, Paul, Gatiss replies.
Except, he isn’t. From here on the film becomes a mental contortion both for Hopkins and the viewer. Who actually is Anne’s husband? Gatiss or Rufus Sewell, who appears after Anne moves her father in with them; Paris apparently on hold. As the viewer, you are losing the plot along with Anthony.
Just like my dad, Anthony swivels on a sixpence between charm and cruelty
The film by the French novelist and playwright Florian Zeller, adapted from his stage play with Christopher Hampton – for which they have now both won the Oscar – plays with perspective so cleverly that it is impossible to maintain any sort of emotional distance. One minute we are in Anne’s world, one fraught with suppressed emotions of anger but overlaid by sorrow and concern, the next we are in Anthony’s increasingly narrowing vision. His watch, which is continually getting lost then “found” again, becomes a metaphor for the narrowing focus of his life. He tries to control it – obsessively asking what time it is, then displaying momentary triumph when he can read it for himself. Like my own father, the urbane Anthony becomes a ferocious monster as Alzheimer’s strips away inhibitions, revealing dark, profoundly unattractive places beneath.
Anthony swivels on a sixpence between charm and cruelty, just like my dad who once told my 15 year-old nephew that his shaved head reminded him of the Nazis. On meeting his newest caregiver – a tremendous Imogen Poots – Anthony flirts like a master then pulls the rug from under her with a lacerating cruelty that shocks.
The time-line distorts and confuses. Breakfasts seem to last till dinner. Anthony remains in his pyjamas all day. In her guilty imagination, Anne tries to suffocate him. Sewell, as what seems to be the genuine husband, hisses to him, “Do you intend to go on ruining your daughter's life like this?” Anthony can only stare into the distance. Sewell's part maybe small but it is critical as through his frustrations and anger, we're shown the fraying, unravelling truth of Anne's marriage. Maybe she is going to Paris after all?
In a moment of sudden clarity – cruelly afforded dementia sufferers even as their world collapses around them – Anthony stares out of a window at the park and says, “I feel I am losing all my leaves, and my branches”. By then, the spacious flat has been exchanged for a care home room, Anthony is alone, Anne is in Paris, the loneliness is profound. Zeller has created a masterpiece which, better than any film I’ve ever seen, takes you into the crazy terror of a disintegrating mind, while always conscious of the havoc it causes those around them.
Baroness Boycott is a Crossbench peer
Directed by: Florian Zeller
UK release: in cinemas from June 11
Best Actor: Anthony Hopkins
Best Adapted Screenplay: Florian Zeller & Christopher Hampton