Movies that deal with people with dementia are invariably tough watches. Seeing a person decline mentally, and how that affects them and the people who love them, is brutal not only because the viewer feels for the characters, but also because the fictional experiences could all too easily become a reality for anybody watching.
There have been a variety of approaches to depicting someone’s lack of mental awareness through the years, but the technique used in The Father is among the most interesting. Anthony (Anthony Hopkins) is the title father, a man in his 80s who’s being cared for by his daughter, Anne (Olivia Colman). Like many in similar situations, Anne is faced with the debate between continuing to deal with Anthony’s fierce mood swings on her own, hiring someone to help, or, as a last resort, putting him in a nursing home.
It soon becomes clear that the audience is seeing events through Anthony’s addled state of mind, as scenes seem to move in one direction before veering off in entirely unexpected ways. Consequently, the truth of what’s happening in Anthony’s life is almost impossible to ascertain, as he’s confused by almost everything and everyone around him. What’s never in doubt is that he is someone who can no longer properly take care of himself, no matter how much he protests to the contrary.
French screenwriter/playwright Florian Zeller adapted his own play for his directorial debut, working with co-writer Christopher Hampton to bring the story to life. Unlike some other stage-to-screen adaptations, the film rarely feels like it’s trying to escape its theater roots. It is mostly set in one location, but through a combination of great staging and editing, Zeller is easily able to give insight into Anthony’s bewildered mind.
While the technique is effective in communicating what’s happening to Anthony, it does have a sort of distancing effect on the emotional aspect of the situation. Because the audience can never be sure if what Anthony is seeing is real, the sadness of his illness and its impact on Anne is blunted, giving it a general sorrow instead of something more specific.
At 83, Hopkins remains as impressive an actor as he was 30 years ago when he creeped us all out in Silence of the Lambs. Save for a scene or two, he keeps this performance free from histrionics, embodying the character’s struggle through subtle line readings and a hunched posture. Colman, who’s been on quite the run in movies and TV in the last few years, is his equal throughout the film, giving a mostly thankless part more depth than it might otherwise have had.
The Father hits home in multiple ways due to its creative filmmaking and two compelling performances by seasoned actors. It’s one of those films that viewers may want to see only once, but once is all it takes to understand its power.
The Father opens in theaters on March 12 and will be available via Premium VOD on March 26.