Review: The Father

SEAL OF APPROVAL

Director: Florian Zeller

Stars: Anthony Hopkins, Imogen Poots, Olivia Colman

Anthony (Anthony Hopkins) would be so much more at ease if he knew where his watch was. Time is a great solidifier, you see. We take it for granted, but when you know when you are then the rest all tends to fall into place. You know where you’re going and you know where you’ve been. But to not know that…? To lose such compass points…? It’s very disorienting, don’t you see? If only Anthony knew where his watch was…

With an unassuming, defiantly un-exciting name like The Father, with its middle-class setting and background (adapted by the director from his own play) and with its aura of awards season bait, it’d be all too easy to take Florian Zeller’s film for granted. To scoff at it. To dismiss it. Another mawkishly tasteful British drama that nobody will remember sixth months from now.

That would be a mistake.

Now that all the Best Picture contenders have made their way to our screens (large or small), I’d wager this is the one among the crop that won’t be forgotten. The biggest folly would be to underestimate it.

Anthony is in his 80s and he’s lived in his spacious London flat for nigh-on 30 years, but his daughter Ann (Olivia Colman) is worried about him. He isn’t the man he once was, it seems. She’d like to get him some assistance. Indeed they’ve been through several carers, from all accounts. Anthony fell out with the most recent one over his watch, which went missing. He thinks she stole it. If only Anthony knew where his watch was…

The Father is a tale of living with Alzheimer’s told from within the experience. Very nearly every scene takes place indoors, within the increasingly labyrinthine walls of Anthony’s precious flat. That the space itself comes to quickly feel like an elaboration of Anthony’s precarious state of mind helps Zeller immensely. It doesn’t feel like a play that’s been transposed to the screen. Rather, like Natalie Erika James’ phenomenal horror film Relic, the enclosure of the familiar comes to echo the inescapable frustrations that beset Anthony on a day-to-day basis.

Where someone like Ken Loach might’ve used this opportunity for some labored hand-wringing and sledgehammer sentimentalism, Zeller’s approach is coldly modern. His approach is unflinching, rather like that of Steve McQueen. Not cold exactly, but utterly without the intention of mollycoddling an audience. Like McQueen he doesn’t for a second assume his viewer needs to be pandered to. And, also like McQueen, he draws phenomenal work from his actors.

Good as Chadwick Boseman was in Ma Rainey and tragic as his loss is, once you’ve seen it, there’s little arguing with the ferocity of Anthony Hopkins’ performance here. With his character’s personality shifting as erratically as the people surrounding him, we’re treated to echoes of a great many of his past triumphs, all within Anthony. Hell, in the presence of would-be carer Laura (Imogen Poots) there’s even a shocking flash of Lecter behind the eyes. It’s an all mighty turn. Fierce, fragile, gentile, babyish. But all anchored in Hopkins’ stocky frame. The performance has the rounded thickness of the man. That’s a compliment.

For those that orbit Anthony, the same praise can be applied. Particularly, it has to be said, Olivia Colman, who with a look conveys so much of a daughter’s pain at watching a parent become a child in front of her. This isn’t hackneyed single-tear territory. Rather it’s the swimming eyelids of someone who’s been holding in a breath for far, far too long. Such a sense of truth extends to all… even when, like Anthony, we feel like we can’t trust anyone

There’s a three act structure here, but The Father doesn’t so much escalate (or, more aptly, decline) as it does elongate. Again, it’s all in the sense of displaced time that Zeller conveys (where is that watch….?). Confused by events that seem to zip back and forth in terms of chronology, keeping step with everything is ultimately a zero sum game. The Father is more about the flatness of Alzheimer’s. The perpetual loss of place. A continuous trauma.

In that it is a desperately sad but wholly empathetic experience. A viewfinder into a frightening real and commonplace scenario. Enough to make you worry about your own faculties and to make you set reminders to check in on any aging relatives you’ve not spoken to in a while. Casually terrifying, this might turn out to be the most effective horror film of the year.

If only…

If only…

If only Anthony knew where his watch was…

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