It’s not always easy to adapt for the screen a work originally written for the stage, and the degree to which any such adaptation is successful relies on both the filmmaker’s and the writer’s ability to translate what is typically a single field of vision into the much more complex medium of the moving image. In the case of The Father, a heartrending exploration of aging, parent-child bonds and the tricks our memories play on us, playwright Florian Zeller takes his own wildly successful French play (Le Père) and, with the help of a translated script by Christopher Hampton, creates an affecting, deeply moving film. Zeller has directed previously—including a French version of this very play—and perhaps it’s that familiarity with the story that gives him the confidence to use his camera to toy with both our perceptions and emotions.
In contemporary London, the great Anthony Hopkins (and make no mistake, he is great here) stars as Anthony, a man of advanced age dealing with a dementia that threatens to take away his independence as yet another home care aide is scared off by his outbursts. His grown daughter, Anne (Olivia Colman, also great), is his primary carer, living with her father while she balances her own full life, including her career and romantic pursuits. Early in the film, she breaks the news to Anthony that she’s met someone wonderful and she intends to follow him to Paris so they can be together. It’s all a bit much for Anthony to take in, on top of the prospect of a new carer he doesn’t want in his flat anyways. Anne steps into the kitchen to prepare dinner and, in ways both disorienting and fascinating, we’re soon somewhere else entirely when Anthony encounters a man he doesn’t recognize sitting in his living room. Well, not literally somewhere else, but the ground has certainly shifted in a way that an impatient viewer might find frustrating.
And to be sure, one doesn’t always know exactly where they stand during any given scene of The Father. That, of course, is the point in a film meant to challenge everything we think we know about memory loss and the trust we put in our own perceptions. In inventive and essentially seamless ways, Zeller conveys the unsettling sense of insecurity and vulnerability that comes with a devastating condition like dementia. Scenes that appear to be a continuation of the ones before them are quickly revealed to be anything but; moments that should be routine—a quiet family dinner, for example—are derailed either by Anthony’s unpredictable mood swings or the contempt and resentment they elicit even from those who love him most. Through clever turns with casting (familiar faces including Rufus Sewell, Imogen Poots, Mark Gatiss and Olivia Williams come and go throughout the film), it’s never entirely clear who is who to Anthony, putting us on the same unstable ground he occupies every moment of every day.
Hopkins and Colman deliver some of the finest work in either of their illustrious careers, each of them on the brink of breaking down under the weight of their circumstances. As a once-confident, capable man facing the scary reality of his own physical and mental decline, Hopkins channels his well-known range to create devastatingly moving moments that are both quiet and intense. Anthony (the character) is charming and engaging when he needs to be, but his mood can turn on a dime and Hopkins remains as sharp as ever in taking those curves in stride. Colman matches his masterful performance note for note, her Anne exhausted by the demanding nature of her father’s care and nearly suffocating under the burden of guilt she carries for wanting to be free of it. Both of them are in particularly fine form during a scene featuring Poots as the latest in a long line of in-home caretakers; she’s just arrived to meet Anthony and get settled in her new assignment, and he isn’t having any of it. His charm quickly turns to sarcasm and worse, as Anne quietly cries tears of embarrassment, yes, but also of recognition, reminded again that her father is no longer the man she knew him to be.
After a French stage production, a French film version, an American stage version (starring Frank Langella on Broadway; produced in Chicago in 2019 and reviewed here) and now an American film version, Zeller has managed to make quite a lot out of The Father. It’s hardly surprising, however, as it’s a complex work that only reveals its true depth through its seemingly disconnected pieces. With stirring performances driving the emotional material, The Father ultimately becomes a stark meditation on the limited time any of us have with each other, with this life and even, in the case of a disease like dementia, with our own minds.
The Father is now playing in select theaters. Follow all CDC, health department and venue guidelines if attending indoor screenings.
Did you enjoy this post? Please consider supporting Third Coast Review’s arts and culture coverage by making a donation. Choose the amount that works best for you, and know how much we appreciate your support!