The 2012 play ”The Father” brought fame to its writer, Florian Zeller, and he has since become one of the most successful playwrights of his generation. When Zeller decided to make his feature film debut as a director, he went back to his first hit. The natural choice would have been to make the movie in Zeller’s native tongue, French, but he kept imagining Anthony Hopkins in the lead, an actor he deeply admired. And, after all, the venerable Christopher Hampton had translated his play into English. When Hopkins accepted, Zeller knew it would be impossible for him to make the film in French. In the end, the location didn’t matter. ”The Father” is powerful enough, both as a play and a movie, to touch audiences all over the world.
Rejecting another caregiver
When we first meet Anthony (Hopkins) and his daughter Anne (Olivia Colman), she has come to see him in his London apartment. She’s annoyed with him because he has rejected and insulted a woman he had met who was supposed to become his caregiver. Anthony tells Anne that she must have stolen his watch, because he can’t find it. After a while, he finds the watch in his usual hiding place.
Anne is exasperated. This was the third attempt to find Anthony a caregiver and she really needs to hire someone; she’s moving to Paris and even if she will be coming back frequently to meet him, someone needs to look after her father, whose dementia is getting worse. But Anthony isn’t easily persuaded.
Connecting old age with childhood
When I saw Amour (2012), a portrait of an elderly couple enjoying life until a stroke changed everything, I was deeply touched. This film had a similar effect on me, especially after those last scenes connecting old age with childhood in a way that’s recognizable to anyone who’s worked with or known a person suffering from dementia. The distance between those stages in life may be 70 or 80 years, but feels remarkably closer when an elderly patient can’t remember what he just had for breakfast but confuses a nurse with his mother.
Hopkins delivers one of the best performances of his career as a man who’s enjoyed success in life, but can’t really accept that his days of independence are over. Anthony has moments of brilliance and authority, but they are not many; his mind keeps playing tricks on him. And us, because an amazing aspect of the play and this film is that Zeller lets us into Anthony’s mind in a rarely seen way. By keeping us constantly uncertain of where we are, in Anthony’s or Anne’s apartment, by making us unsure of what time of day it is, we get to sample what it’s like to suffer from dementia. The confusion reaches a Hitchcock-like level in the scene where Anne comes to see Anthony right after he’s encountered a strange man (Mark Gatiss) in his apartment. Anthony is startled to see her, because she doesn’t look anything like his daughter. At this point, Anne is played by a different actress, Olivia Williams, not Olivia Colman, confusing us as well. We understand the reaction in Hopkins’s performance, with Anthony retreating, frightened but reluctantly accepting the situation.
Had this been a Hitchcock movie, we in the audience would know that the villains are playing a trick on our hero… but even if Zeller employs a similar approach as if he’s making a thriller, we understand that this one won’t end with a shoot-out on Mount Rushmore.
The Father remains firmly grounded in real life, one of its great achievements being that it increases people’s understanding of what it’s like to live with this illness. This is how it should be done, not by telling us, but by showing us in a startling manner.
The Father 2021-France-Britain. 97 min. Color. Widescreen. Produced by Philippe Carcassonne, Simon Friend, Jean-Louis Livi, David Parfitt, Christophe Spadone. Direction, Play: Florian Zeller. Screenplay: Florian Zeller, Christopher Hampton. Cast: Anthony Hopkins (Anthony), Olivia Colman (Anne), Rufus Sewell (Paul), Imogen Poots, Mark Gatiss, Olivia Williams.
Last word: “A few days before we shot the film, Anthony came to me and told me, ‘Florian, are you certain about this name? My name, and his date of birth is my real date of birth. Are you certain that it is useful?’ He was doubting it. And I said, ‘Yes, I really want to keep it that way,’ because I thought that it could be like a door. It could open any time during the shooting, and to let in his own very personal emotions, and more precisely, his own personal feeling of mortality. The challenge was to try to explore a new territory, a new, emotional territory.” (Zeller, Deadline)