An independent man struggles to make sense of his changing circumstances, doubting loved ones and even the fabric of his reality as Alzheimer’s attacks his mind. Florian Zeller’s 2014 play The Father drew immense critical acclaim for its innovative depiction of dementia. The esteemed playwright retains creative control in his directorial debut with the film adaptation, co-written by Christopher Hampton (Atonement, Dangerous Liaisons), starring Anthony Hopkins and Olivia Coleman.
Often, what works well on stage does not necessarily transfer quite so successfully to the screen. That is not the case here. Despite being confined to one flat – in what is undoubtedly one of Hopkins’ most triumphant performances – for the majority of the 97-minute run time, it works seamlessly in emphasising the cyclical nature of dementia. Viewers experience the monotony as well as the sense of imprisonment and resulting confusion that plagues the protagonist.
Here spectators see the illness largely through the perspective of the person suffering, contrasting with the majority of works tackling this subject that focus more on its impact on the sufferer’s loved ones. Of course, the audience also observes through the lens of family members – namely Olivia Coleman’s Anne – who clearly struggles to witness her father’s disintegration. But it’s Anthony’s story, and Hopkins steals the show. The actor emanates humour and charm in his character’s more lucid moments, but it is the confusion and subsequent fear the lead experiences that allow him to showcase his weighty talents. It’s an intricate, harrowing and ultimately mesmerising performance of the highest calibre.
Coleman embodies a multitude of emotions. Viewers see glimmers of laughter as she recognises her father of old merge with tender patience as she looks after him. But there is also that sense of selfishness, which inevitably rises in those who are forced to take on the challenge of caring for a loved one. It’s a deceptively complex execution that pairs beautifully with Hopkins’s portrayal.
Zeller is a confident, assured director. In someone else’s hands and with a less capable cast, such techniques as time-jumps and repetition could have produced an overly stylistic, perhaps even gimmicky outcome. Instead, the audience is offered a uniquely structured and sensitively balanced film that surprises and challenges.
In addition to the compelling acting and rich screenplay, Ben Smithard’s cinematography combined with Ludovico Einaudi’s emotive score paint a beautifully vivid picture of a very dark aspect of life. Dementia is something many fear but have such little control over. Hopkins never plays for sympathy and Zeller refuses to shy away from harsh realities yet manages to excavate the positive traits of humanity – love, hope and compassion. The closing scenes are heart-breaking, reminding observers that individuals often begin and end our lives as vulnerable children. An inventive study of the human condition, The Father is not an easy watch, but it is an essential one.
The Father is released on 12th March 2021.
Watch the trailer for The Father here: