In 2012, French playwright Florian Zeller wrote the stageplay La Pére / The Father at the request of actor Robert Hirsch, who’d asked that Zeller create him a bespoke part. The play itself was an introspective drama about an elderly man suffering from dementia, and its appeal came in its distinctly devastating approach; instead of depicting dementia from an outsider’s perspective, it portrayed what dementia would feel like from the perspective of its victim. With such a cleverly and earnestly executed premise, La Pére rapidly became Zeller’s most acclaimed work, receiving numerous accolades and being performed by veteran actors and in theatres across the globe.
Zeller soon found himself wanting to adapt La Pére into a film on his own terms, something he’d never done before with his other works. In a reverse turn of events from how the stageplay was conceptualized, he wrote the screenplay with none other than Sir Anthony Hopkins in mind for the titular role — even changing the protagonist’s own name from André to Anthony in the process (a detail worth noting for later). After working with Atonement (2007) screenwriter Christopher Hampton on an English translation, Zeller surprisingly yet successfully managed to bring an enthusiastic Hopkins on board with the idea. Not long after, production on the film got underway, with Zeller finally sitting in the director’s chair.
Zeller’s attempt at adapting his play into another medium is a debut effort that’s rare to come across — a film created with such brazen, stunning conviction that it’s surprising to learn he’s a completely first-time filmmaker. Driven by Hopkins’ and the supporting cast’s emotionally charged performances, The Father is, in many ways, a visual expansion of Zeller’s powerful source material. Throughout this disorienting depiction of dementia, sets noticeably metamorphose, characters abruptly change in appearance, and cogent details instantly dissipate with a single cut. And thanks to using a medium suited to honing into finer details, Zeller makes it only a matter of time before all of this begins to seep into the audience’s sense of perspective.
The film introduces us to Anthony (Hopkins) as a stubborn, vaguely charming man who refuses all help from anyone for his seemingly benign ailments. He’s implied to have chased away his previous caretaker sometime before the film’s opening scene, and he quarrels regularly with his daughter, Anne (Olivia Colman), over his situation—constantly claiming that “everything is fine” even as Anne’s concerns intensify. She seems to have met someone new in Paris, and supposedly divorced her previous partner years earlier. At some point, she’s due to leave soon and is desperate to find some kind of way to get Anthony proper care—even if it might mean putting him into a nursing home.
The audience eventually gets their first real glimpse of Anthony’s true problem—a stranger (Mark Gatiss) suddenly emerges in his flat, paradoxically claiming to be Anne’s “current” husband, Paul, and also saying that Anthony is their guest. Anne returns to the flat moments later…. but she, too, doesn’t look like herself. Instead, she’s seemingly become another strange woman (Olivia Williams), and Anthony quickly spirals into doubting his surroundings, questioning if even his flat actually belongs to him or not. It’s a truly unsettling and disorienting first impression—one that seems to credibly answer why so many people suffering from Alzheimer’s and dementia can’t recognize their loved ones.
What follows from there is an increasingly unsettling series of events as Anthony’s condition dramatically intensifies, a process portrayed with a striking vulnerability from Hopkins that’s unlike anything he’s ever done before—surely why he received the ‘Best Actor’ Academy Award this year in a jarring turn of events at the ceremony’s bizarre conclusion. Throughout Hopkins’ long career, audiences have grown to associate him with characters of influence and charisma, whether that be through the cunning manipulations of Hannibal Lecter, the authoritarian nature of Richard Nixon, or the veritable litany of kings, monarchs, and rulers from Shakespeare’s bibliography. It’s overall just outright difficult to associate him with anything other than a larger-than-life image.
In The Father, however, that same charisma is used as a veneer assuming the form of Anthony’s initial stubbornness, and is slowly yet surely eroded with each passing scene as Anthony begins navigating a wider array of exposed emotional states. With all of the above context about Hopkins, it’s not difficult to imagine that Zeller telegraphed this in advance—as mentioned, Zeller had changed the titular protagonist’s name to Anthony all while keeping Hopkins in mind for the screenplay. In this sense, The Father can very well be much more than just us watching a fictional character who’s suffering from dementia. Considering that Hopkins is approaching 85 years of age, it’s unfortunately easy to allow a deeper, truly unsettling layer of meta-commentary to set in, something that one might even say Hopkins is consciously playing into over the course of the film to crushing emotional effect.
Florian Zeller’s direction emphasizes this gradual process by—as he did in his play—partially removing us from the perspective of Anthony’s loved ones and making us experience Anthony’s disorientation in full alongside him, removing any possibility of deducing an objective reality from his capricious situation. The end result is a film that’s equal measures Michael Haneke’s Amour (2012) and Charlie Kaufman’s I’m Thinking of Ending Things (2020), merging the former’s brutally sentimental depiction of ageing with the latter’s disjointed and ouroboric lapses in time to create a film that’s as memorable as its calculated forgetfulness.
Amplifying this effect is set designer Peter Francis’s meticulous production work, which slowly blears the architectural differences between Anthony and Anne’s flats, and employs a particularly haunting shade of blue that gradually grows more prominent in the frame, leading straight into the film’s visually evocative final stretch. It’s difficult to say that this film fully surpasses its theatrical constraints—after all, much like the source material, the film’s rife with dialogue and confined to interior locations—but at the same time, it’s with this attention to detail that The Father shows signs of evolving into a claustrophobic and unnerving cinematic experience.
This sort of constant toying with perspective is what offers much of The Father‘s immense emotional potency. Simple, mundane objects such as Anthony’s coveted wristwatch initially seem to mean very little, but slowly morph into jarring reminders of the extent to which Anthony’s dementia has impaired him. Certain scenes and revelations are phrased almost circularly, both in an immediate and gradual sense, as self-contradictory or repetitive details—for instance, different characters being played by the same actor—slowly begin to make sense despite Anthony’s incoherent sense of chronology. As much as Anthony’s growing inability to remember things might throw the audience off with its purposeful inconsistency, the desperation he feels is cogently and concretely expressed throughout the course of the film—the one thing that truly remains intact for both him and the audience closely following alongside him.
Of course, the beating heart at the centre of it all is Hopkins himself, who quite possibly delivers the most stirring, exposed performance of his entire decades-long career. You never get the sense that someone so towering and prestigious might display such emotional susceptibility, even in a role such as this, but from the moment he—as Anthony—first bitterly protests against getting help for himself, the inflexions in his voice and the look in his eyes make the realization instantaneous; he knows something is wrong, and he is fighting very hard to deny it.
However, when even Anthony’s stalwart denial dissipates as his story continues on, the final few scenes of The Father unflinchingly flay open a distressing, vulnerable side to Hopkins that feels so inconceivably foreign, so unlike his traditional image that it’s almost frightening to watch. For a moment, the same man who played Hannibal Lecter, the same man who played Nixon and the numerous rulers in Shakespeare’s literary canon—is gone. There is nothing but Anthony left, and even so, very little of him still remains.
UK • FRANCE | 2020 | 97 MINUTES | 2.39:1 | COLOUR | ENGLISH
Cast & Crew
director: Florian Zeller.
writers: Florian Zeller & Christopher Hampton (based on the play Le Père by Florian Zeller).
starring: Anthony Hopkins, Olivia Colman, Mark Gatiss, Imogen Poots, Rufus Sewell & Olivia Williams.