Film review: ‘The Father’ by Nick Gardener from ‘Built For Speed’

The Father is an extremely moving, sometimes distressing depiction of the ravages of dementia.  Adapted from his stage play, director Florian Zeller has fashioned, not so much a medical story but one of vanishing identity and the tragic impact this has on a man and his family.

Anthony Hopkins plays a man also named Anthony who it appears is living with his daughter Anne  (Olivia Coleman) and her husband (Rufus Sewell) in their upmarket London flat. Afflicted with dementia, Anthony’s memory and behaviour have become increasingly erratic as he swings from relatively stable moments to unusual paranoid obsessions about people stealing his watch, to exaggerated elation, to anger at people condescending to him. The film captures his increasing disorientation through disconcerting changes in his reality including unusual time shifts where events seem to repeat and people change into others.  Often Anthony and the audience are unsure if he is in his flat, in his daughter’s home or in hospital.

The effect of Anthony’s world swirling out of control around him is to make him increasingly anxious and fearful.  The film at times resembles a Twilight Zone-style psychological thriller in which reality becomes increasingly twisted out of shape.  This is an effective way of placing the audience in Anthony’s shoes and feeling his alarming loss of control.

The film very clearly reveals its stage roots with most scenes filmed in a couple of rooms and very few outdoor shots.  While this initially feels limiting, it soon becomes entirely appropriate as this is about the drama playing out in a confined domestic space and in Anthony’s mind.

Given its theatrical approach, the film’s success rests on the actors’ performances. Hopkins is remarkable capturing the wildly shifting emotions of a dementia sufferer with remarkable insight and nuance.  Sometimes witty, sometimes desperately sad and distraught and occasionally confrontingly angry and even cruel, he delivers a stunning performance.

Olivia Coleman is also superb.  Her desperate attempts to force a smile and a calming voice when confronted by her father’s behaviour are heartbreaking.  Not only is she struggling as a carer but her father’s tendency to constantly regurgitate fragments of old memories forces her to confront deeply affecting family issues including Anthony’s favouritism of his other daughter Lucy who is mysteriously absent.  Amid the stress of coping with the terrible impact of dementia and the effect of painful family conflicts, there are also touching moments of tenderness between Anthony and Anne that never become overly sentimental.

In a smaller role, Rufus Sewell manages to make an indelible impression capturing the frustration of someone who feels their life has been derailed by an unexpected responsibility.  His bitterness often makes him alarmingly contemptuous of Anthony and he borders on despicable but he’s also at times the voice of reason.

A film that focuses on the tragic impact of any disease is a hard watch and this is definitely not for those seeking escapism.  As a potent statement about a vital issue and as a showcase of some of the best actors in the business, though, it one of the year’s essential films.

Nick’s rating: ****

Genre: Drama.

Classification: M.

Director(s): Florian Zeller

Release date: 1st April 2021.

Running time: 97 mins.

Reviewer: Nick Gardener can be heard on “Built For Speed” every Friday night from 8-10pm right here on 88.3 Southern FM.  Nick can also be heard on “The Good, The Bad, The Ugly Film Show” podcast.


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