Most of this year’s Academy Awards contenders were widely available when the nominations dropped earlier this month. The exception? Florian Zeller’s The Father, which picked up six nods to put it in a multi-way tie for the second-most. While it has played in theaters for about a month, Zeller’s film is now available for online rental – good news for more than just pandemic-conscious Oscar completists. A cleverly involving drama anchored by a tremendous performance from Anthony Hopkins, The Father earns its recognition as one of the year’s best movies. I know many people have avoided emotionally heavy cinema at various points over the last year, but those ready to take those feelings on again shouldn’t let this movie slip them by.
Adapted from Zeller’s own French-language play Le Pére, The Father opens as Anne (Olivia Colman) confronts her elderly father Anthony (Hopkins) over the sudden resignation of his caregiver, the latest to leave because of his hostile behavior. He accuses her of having stolen his watch, but when Anne confirms he had just forgotten his usual hiding place, he insists he doesn’t need living assistance anyway. When Anne explains she intends to move to Paris, having found someone new five years after her divorce, a dismayed Anthony declares he will never leave his London apartment. But when he then encounters a man (Mark Gatiss) in the living room who claims not only to live there, but to be Anne’s husband of ten years, the plot starts to look a lot more slippery than it initially seemed.
I am staying vague in the interest of leaving some of the film’s most interesting choices unspoiled, but this is no mystery story. Anthony suffers from dementia, and through its structure, dialogue, and actors, The Father works to communicate his scrambled experience of the world to the audience. The result is often confusing, of course, but accessibly so – the broad strokes are gradually made clear, even if the details remain difficult to pin down. Zeller gives us enough of what life is like for Anthony that we are always able to consider his perspective, and Hopkins does the rest, making every little detail of his thought process legible on his body. The frailty, charm, and confusion he projects in one moment can seem incompatible with the cutting aggression and paranoia that suddenly follow, but he is completely convincing at every stage, giving a unified performance of a fracturing psyche.
The film’s creative strategy for portraying dementia is deeply affecting, and this alone would make it a successful project. But what’s most remarkable about The Father is how compellingly it manages to convey Anne’s experience without compromising its conceit. The film’s chronology, which seemingly belongs to Anthony, is just as resonant for Colman’s character; in each interaction, she cannot know whether her father will be warm, cruel, or unable to recognize her, and without shared memory to carry those moments forward, does when they happen even matter anymore? This dual-functionality speaks to the quality of the screenplay, as well as Zeller’s direction – in a year with a few high-profile theatrical adaptations, The Father is arguably the most cinematic-feeling of them all. Viewers who seek this film out will find it intelligent, approachable, and engrossing, and at 97 minutes, well worth their time. Just be prepared to shed a few tears before it’s over.
Rating: 4.5 Stars! Don’t miss it.