Based on his successful play, director Florian Zeller’s The Father is a touching chamber piece with an impressive cast led by Anthony Hopkins and Oliva Colman. I found it surprisingly affecting. Although it’s Hopkins and Colman’s acting skills that are winning the plaudits, the film’s success is just as much due to a daringly experimental structure and production design that it nevertheless wears lightly. It’s an impressive balancing act.
The film follows Anthony (played by Hopkins, deserving his BAFTA Best Actor gong), an aging man who struggles with the onset of dementia, and his adult daughter Anne (Colman) who struggles to support him in his increasing confusion. Anthony has moved into Anne and her husband’s London flat (or is it the other way round?) so she can care for him. As his dementia worsens his moods veer from irritability to vivacity to hide from or cope with his increasing vulnerability, and the strain puts pressure on both Anne and her marriage.
Hopkins is exceptional; he gives a wonderfully layered performance that interlaces confused vulnerability, charm, and testiness. It’s profoundly moving; we watch as his character becomes increasingly helpless and bewildered, struggling to cope. He’s often dislikeable and at times brazenly tactless, but Hopkins’s portrayal is always sympathetic, and so we in turn sympathise even when Anthony is at his most irascible.
Colman is good at expressing Anne’s wearied concern, just about coping with the attrition of her situation. It’s a central supporting role, and she performs it well although always in Hopkins shadow, by comparison her character never feels quite as nuanced and complex. The supporting cast are all strong in relatively minor roles, including Mark Gattis, Imogen Poots (Vivarium) as Anthony’s positive yet slightly patronising nurse, and Rufus Sewell as Anna’s intemperate and unsympathetic husband.
But while Hopkins’s acting is getting most of the critics’ attention, what struck me is how boldly experimental this film is in its structure and its production design. Yes, it relies at times on familiar short cuts for dementia, such as objects going missing, accusations of theft, angry tantrums that stem from helplessness and confusion. But The Father goes much further, using quite disorienting techniques to put us in Anthony’s head. Yet it applies these so seamlessly that it even the most conservative viewer won’t be put off.
The Father compares interestingly with Natalie Erika James’s horror Relic. That film draws from the anxieties of close relatives as they watch their dementia-suffering grandmother become increasingly alien and lost. By contrast, The Father pulls off a remarkable dual perspective: the clear-eyed concern of a worried daughter and the bewildered confusion of Anthony himself.
The is due to film’s direction and script, which offer a masterclass in misdirection and ambiguity. Dialogue and even entire scenes repeat, like distorted memories. Characters appear and vanish; some are strangers, others are echoes from the past. We anticipate a particular character is coming in the door, but suddenly they have a different face, played by a different actor. Zeller, who won the Best Adapted Screenplay BAFTA, continually pulls the rug under our feet.
But even more impressive is the production design. The film is mostly set in a large, lofty apartment, but it’s one that blurs Anthony’s Maida Vale flat and Anne’s own home, the two blend and morph echoing Anthony’s disorientation. Production designer Peter Francis achieves this by constantly interlacing set designs – a fireplace changes, a picture disappears, a table lamp alters – but by retaining the internal layout, the position of the multiple doors and the relationship between individual spaces, it remains familiar yet amorphous.
Wall colours change – Anthony’s flat is painted a comfortable burnt yellow; Anne’s is a fresh blue (as is her clothing). The two colour schemes mix and the film gradually evolves further to a more sterile hue. Anthony’s furniture and appliances are older, Anne’s more modern. The two blend constantly. The juxtapositions and echoes are disarming. Repeatedly, the camera slowly glides down a long corridor with a door at each end, but sometimes the door opens to a bathroom, another time a closet.
Although the resulting confusions are often foregrounded, most of the changes are subtle, barely noticeable. The sense that something has changed, but you can’t quite figure out what. It is immensely effective and lifts this adaptation from the usual staginess of a filmed play.
I was downhearted to see in the opening credits that the music was written by Ludovico Einaudi, a tiresome composer whose minimalist arpeggios and simple chord structures are typically banal. But thankfully, as in his score for Nomadland, in this case his score is not overbearing. A lightly bowed violin spring-arpeggio recitative adds to the sense of something not quite right, and thankfully the music is lighter and more sparing than his cloying piano works. The soundtrack is mostly opera arias anyway (Anthony enjoys escaping into recordings on his headphones) so Einaudi’s music doesn’t dominate too much.
I was much more impressed by The Father than I anticipated. It’s emotionally direct but never manipulative, and it’s finely crafted to balance bravely disorienting direction with masterful acting. At the end I was quite deeply affected as Anthony settles into ‘second childishness and mere oblivion’ and this chamber piece comes highly recommended.
The Father will be released in the UK on 11th June 2021.Follow @davefilmblog