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9 June 2021updated 14 Sep 2021 2:09pm

Dementia drama The Father is a campaign of disorientation

Anthony Hopkins gives a gale-force performance in a role that demands a head-spinning range of emotional shifts.

By Ryan Gilbey

The poster for The Father shows Olivia Colman snuggled up to Anthony Hopkins, gazing at him with indulgent fondness as if to say: “Oh, Dad. You are a one.” It promises a heart-warming story of lessons learned and familial bonds fortified, but The Father is not that movie. In its howls of mortal distress, Florian Zeller’s film is as hypnotically ugly as a Francis Bacon mouth, as doom-drenched as one of Larkin’s late laments.

Adapting his own play for the screen (with his regular translator, the British playwright Christopher Hampton), Zeller has rechristened the main character, an 83-year-old man suffering from dementia who is convinced that his devoted elder daughter is plotting to steal his home. On stage, he was André. Now when he asks a nurse his name, he receives the reply: “You’re Anthony.”

Zeller has modified the character’s birth date to match Hopkins’ own, as well as supplying echoes, unwitting or otherwise, of the actor’s filmography. He is haunted by memories of his dead daughter, as he was in the 1977 reincarnation horror Audrey Rose. His fixation on an incriminating timepiece will remind Hopkins-watchers of the cuckold he played in the 1997 thriller The Edge. As dinner approaches, there seems every likelihood he will be eating a census-taker’s liver served with fava beans and a nice Chianti. But no. It’s chicken.

Anthony lives in his spacious flat in west London. Or is it really the home of his daughter Anne (Colman), whom we first see chiding him for scaring off his most recent carer? Anne’s partner (Mark Gatiss) insists that this is their flat, but the old man doesn’t even recognise him. “You live here?” he scoffs. “That’s the best yet!” Besides, it was only a moment ago that Anne said she was moving to Paris to be with a Frenchman. So who’s this joker in the armchair?

It gets worse. The next time Anne walks in, she doesn’t even resemble herself: on this occasion, she is played by Olivia Williams. Anne No 1 does reappear eventually, except now her partner is a saturnine, intimidating figure (Rufus Sewell) who asks the cowering Anthony: “How long do you intend to hang around here getting on everyone’s tits?”

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Casting multiple actors in the same part can be a way of rendering a character unknowable (Buñuel’s That Obscure Object of Desire) or multifaceted (the Bob Dylan biopic I’m Not There). Here it instils a constant low-level dread, since we can never be sure which face will be attached to which name, and whether it will be wearing a smile or a scowl. Films about dementia risk pitying their subjects or inviting audiences to observe confusion from a safe distance, but there is no danger of that here. We rarely know more than Anthony does, and we’re usually just as bewildered.

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In the stage production, props and furniture were removed with each scene, until all that was left at the end was a bed on a blank white set. Zeller and his production designer, Peter Francis, have found a cinematic equivalent to that theatrical effect. Following the lead of Alain Resnais, who made time and topography fluid in Last Year at Marienbad, they subtly alter the layout and appearance of Anthony’s home as the movie progresses. Walls change colour, passageways narrow. A door through which Anne enters at the start of the film turns out later to lead only to a broom cupboard.

This campaign of disorientation is so successful that it almost conceals the flaw in the film’s conception. If everything is filtered through a fogged and fritzing mind, and there exists no definitive reality, then by rights we shouldn’t be able to witness any scenes in which Anthony himself is not present. Particularly disruptive is the glimpse into one of Anne’s nightmares, which weakens the authority of the film’s point of view by dragging us out of Anthony’s head. A first-person perspective in a movie of this sort must by its nature be total. You can’t really dabble in immersion.

If Zeller and Hampton’s Oscar-winning script has highlighted problems that weren’t apparent on stage, Hopkins’ gale-force performance (also Oscar-winning) provides the most magnificent of compensations. The part demands from him a head-spinning range of emotional and behavioural shifts, from confusion (“Who exactly am I?”) to charm (“Ding-dong!”), from rage to sobbing helplessness.

His work is at its most complex when Anthony is trying to stay ahead of everyone else without possessing the faculties to do so. He has the muscle memory from a lifetime of winning arguments, starting spats and outwitting family members, but the skills to reprise those former victories have deserted him. The best he can do is to pantomime his way through the day, pretending to understand more than he does, disguising his goofs as intentional gags and trying not to let the terror show.

But terror is the prevailing note here, and it’s one that Hopkins plays without compromise or timidity. In “The Old Fools”, Larkin surveyed his elderly subjects, who spend “days of thin continuous dreaming/Watching light move”, and wondered: “Why aren’t they screaming?” Well, this one is.

“The Father” is in cinemas from 11 June

The Father (12A)
dir: Florian Zeller

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This article appears in the 09 Jun 2021 issue of the New Statesman, The Covid cover-up?