Have you ever gone into a movie not knowing what to expect and then walk out realizing you just sat through the definition of a true “experience”? That was me with “The Father”. A new award-season favorite, “The Father” is just finally reaching cinemas the weekend before it’s destined to receive some Oscar nods and by God does it deserve all the praise it’s getting. Written and directed by Florian Zeller in his directorial debut, “The Father” is based on Zeller’s own play called “Le Père” and stars Anthony Hopkins as an aging man who is suffering from dementia while trying to adapt to his new life living with his daughter played by Olivia Coleman. Based on that premise alone I figured I was walking into a potentially tear-jerking drama that would dive into the struggles of caring for someone with dementia, and while I was right it’s so much more. I was NOT prepared for the unique and creative way that it delves into the father’s perspective as he struggles to keep the reality around him in focus. This is not only a spectacular film, but also possibly one of Hopkins’ best performances of his career.
“The Father” is a pretty small-scale film but to explain all the intricacies behind it would also ruin the experience and shock value if you’re planning on seeing it for yourself. So for the sake of this review I’m going to try to be vague but what you need to know going in is that nothing is what it seems pretty much from the start. “The Father” sticks mostly to the flat of Olivia Coleman’s Anne who is caring for her father Anthony played by Anthony Hopkins appropriately enough. The rest of the small cast is comprised of Rufus Sewell, Imogen Poots, Mark Gatiss and Olivia Williams who all play different people that Anthony interacts with who may or may not be who they seem from his perspective. The cast as a whole is pretty damn good, especially Coleman who portrays a struggling loved one trying to manage Anthony’s illness. However Hopkins steals the show here as he portrays the confusion, disorientation and frustration someone with dementia has to endure. I recently lost my grandmother to this disease and I have to tell you from experience a lot of what you see on screen is pretty spot on. Hopkins is at peak form here especially in the final few minutes of the movie where he turns in possibly one of the single best scenes of his illustrious career.
“The Father’s” story structure is also a big reason why this movie works. Florian Zeller makes smart decisions when adapting his work from the stage to the screen by using the smallest of details to his advantage. Little things like subtle moments, small background details and even the color of the characters’ cloths all help you put together this complicated puzzle as we’re presented with a disorganized series of events from Anthony’s perspective. It’s all done in a way that causes the viewer to experience first hand how Anthony is perceiving reality. It reminded me of a book I read once when I was a kid, “I Am the Cheese”. If you haven’t read this book, I encourage you to read it but only AFTER you see this movie because it could give away a lot of the secrets hidden in the film’s finale. The general idea is that we, the audience, are always questioning reality the way Anthony does and it’s easy to find ourselves frustrated when we end up reliving the same scene for the third or fourth time but that is really the point. Anthony himself is also reliving this moment, trying to make sense of his memory and we’re along for the ride. It provides a fun little puzzle that forces the viewer to pay close attention and even warrants a rewatch or two to catch everything, but it’s also terribly honest insight into how someone with dementia struggles to comprehend the world. It felt like I was watching a strange horror thriller at times but there are no traditional thrills, just the actual horrors of reality that come with a degenerative brain disease.
I can’t say enough about Hopkins in this movie because most of the best scenes depend solely on him. When Anthony takes moments to rationalize things to himself, we get a picture of a once self-sufficient and confident man brought to his knees by a situation completely out of his control. Sadly, we also see how he begins to give up and lose faith in the people around him. Then we have Coleman who is the other side of the coin, a frustrated and heartbroken woman trying to live her life but also do what’s right for her father who is facing a new, scary reality. Their relationship serves to shine light on the difficulties of trying to do what’s right by a loved one with dementia and how hard it can be for that loved one to be falling into an abyss of confusion and incoherence after years of being able to fend for themselves. Coleman feels like she can’t do enough an Anthony doesn’t want her to do anything because he wants to fend for himself. This movie is not only an engaging look as dementia, it’s a heartbreaking and human experience that takes no prisoners and confidently journey’s into some dark and touchy territory trying and succeeding to do justice to an experience that most of us couldn’t possibly understand from either character’s perspective unless we’ve been through it.
As you’ve probably deduced by now “The Father” is a must see. It’s the kind of film that sends you on a journey you may not expect and as a result may just change your life and how you look at people in Anthony’s position. Dementia is not a fun disease for either the afflicted or their families and having lost two grandparents to it I found this film to not only be respectful to the struggles of the family but also to the struggles of someone who, after decades of understanding the world around them, begins to falter and struggle with the loneliness and confusion of the disease and the horrible truth that this is their reality now and they may never be able to make sense of it again. What makes it so engaging is that it’s not a cut-and-dry story as it uses Anthony’s perspective to immerse us in his confusion and put us right into the reality he is facing providing a neat, if disturbing, little puzzle for us to piece together as Anthony does every day. I could go on and on about all the great things this movie has to offer, but it truly is something you have to see for yourself and to that end it’s a movie experience I will recommend to everyone as long as I live.