Florian Zeller, “The Father” (2020)
Detailing an elderly father’s deterioration from dementia, and the effects his condition has on the people around him, this film adopts the dementia victim’s perspective to draw in viewers to share in the victim’s disorientation, paranoia, mood swings, loss of memory and ultimately loss of identity. Viewers come to identify with the victim’s confusion and experience his emotional devastation and fear of losing himself as he begins to enter the disease’s final and most advanced stage of memory loss and fragmentation. The film begins with Anne (Olivia Colman), a middle-class Londoner, telling her father Anthony (Anthony Hopkins) that she is going to live in Paris with a new partner after five years of being a divorcee, and that she can no longer help him every day as she used to do. From here on, the film follows Anthony as he tries to cope with this news and deal with yet another care-giver, Laura (Imogen Poots), after all the other care-givers who have left him because of his mood swings and his tantrums. A sense of mystery develops as various mysterious people (played by Mark Gatiss, Rufus Sewell and Olivia Williams) move in and out of the London apartment where Anthony lives. These people are not readily identified by name – audiences may assume Sewell is playing either Anne’s ex-husband or her new boyfriend – and Anthony either takes them for people he knows or treats them as strangers and responds to them with hostility. Only at the very end of the film are the characters played by Gatiss and Williams revealed, and the apartment where Anthony has been living is exposed for what it actually is after all its transformations and changes in furniture and decor throughout the film. A second mystery, almost a sub-plot, that involves the whereabouts of Anthony’s second daughter Lucy (Imogen Poots again) develops in the characters’ dialogue.
Originally adapted from director Florian Zeller’s French-language play “Le Pere”, the film relies a great deal on Hopkins and Colman to bring the father and daughter and their fractious relationship to life in a convincing manner. Hopkins brings his full range and experience as both a stage and film actor to portray Anthony, especially in the film’s final moments when he has an emotional breakdown and becomes infant-like: this is the most heart-wrenching part of the film, all the more so because by this time the daughter Anne is absent. Colman’s role as the caring daughter is rather more stereotyped as viewers are limited to seeing and experiencing things from Anthony’s viewpoint; thus we do not see what work she does and what her relationship with Sewell’s character is actually like. Colman does do excellent work with what she is given but viewers may well feel she should have been given more to flesh out Anne as a woman forced to give up much of her life and put it on hold to care for someone whose need for help is rapidly becoming more than she is able to give. The rest of the cast give good support.
While the film’s focus on the dementia victim’s viewpoint is original and admirable, at the same time it has the effect of making Anthony’s condition and the difficulties it causes for his family rather banal and generic, and insulated from the outside world. We do not see any difficulties Anne and Anthony might have in dealing with medical personnel or the National Health Service generally. The film takes place in a London yet to be besieged by COVID-19 pandemic lock-down: the events of the film might have been more interesting if Anne were prevented or restricted by lock-down in looking after her father and how Anthony copes with extended periods of isolation that he is unable to understand the reasons for. It is obvious from the comfortable if ever-changing apartment surroundings that Anthony and Anne are very well-off but there is no discussion of money issues or medical payment delays among the characters that could have generated further tension and conflict. The result is a film that can only go so far in demonstrating how dementia and other diseases that devastate elderly people can have a tremendous emotional, financial and logistical impact on their families, and no more. “The Father” is a good film as character studies go but it is not a great film.