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10 February 2023

Florian Zeller’s The Son is a work of crass melodrama

The decorated playwright and director’s follow-up to his Oscar-winning The Father is manipulative and underwritten.

By David Sexton

Florian Zeller has won all the prizes already. He began publishing novels in his early twenties, winning the Prix Interallié for his third, The Fascination of Evil, in 2004. Turning playwright, he won a series of awards, notably for The Mother (2010) and The Father (2012), first in France and then around the world. His 2020 debut as a film director, The Father, won Anthony Hopkins the Best Actor Oscar, while Zeller and his English-language collaborator Christopher Hampton took Best Adapted Screenplay.

The Son, the third play in a loose or “spiritual” trilogy, first produced on stage in Paris in 2018, is the second film Zeller has directed, relocating a story originally set in France to New York. High-powered lawyer Peter (Hugh Jackman) has recently divorced his wife Kate (Laura Dern) to marry the much younger Beth (Vanessa Kirby), with whom he has a baby boy. But teenager Nicholas (newcomer Zen McGrath), his son with Kate, has been badly affected, becoming deeply depressed. He has not been to school for a month, Kate discovers. When Peter tries to talk to him, Nicholas asks to move in with his father’s new family.

At first, this seems to help, as Nicholas starts a new school and claims that he’s getting As and has been invited to a party. In the one happy scene, the new family dances together, prepping for it. But actually Nicholas is becoming ever sadder, skipping this school too and self-harming. Beth is scared of him and won’t leave her baby in his care. “When are you going to face up to the fact he’s not right in the head?” she asks Peter, a moment unfortunately eavesdropped, in classic theatrical style, by Nicholas.

After a suicide attempt, Nicholas is hospitalised. His doctor tells Peter and Kate he needs to spend some time in care, for his own safety, but, faced with Nicholas’s anguished pleading, they decide to look after him at home, with disastrous consequences. In an equally hoary theatrical device, it has been casually mentioned earlier that there happens to be an old hunting rifle in the utility room in the apartment…

This painful story is told quite objectively, in chronological order, without any of Zeller’s trademark reality-flipping. There’s a flashback element every now and then, when, to enhance the anguish, Peter keeps remembering a sunny holiday they had together in Corsica when Nicholas was six and he taught him to swim – and there’s also a final fantasy sequence in which Peter imagines that Nicholas, thriving in Toronto, has turned out splendidly and even published a debut novel, Death Can Wait.

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But the unreality of that scene is always obvious. We grasp the facts of the story unambiguously, from beginning to end. In Zeller’s play The Father, nothing is so clear. We, the audience, are thrown into the confusion experienced by the dementia-afflicted hero, Anthony, as different actors appear apparently in the same roles, scenes occur out of sequence and don’t relate coherently to each other, and stories change bewilderingly. The film artfully elaborates on this theatrical experience, constantly changing our viewpoints and the rooms that Anthony inhabits. Similar methods are used, less effectively, in his nasty play The Mother, in which a 47-year-old woman, trying desperately to cling on to her errant husband and exasperated son, also slips reality, this time through drink and drugs, rather than dementia.

But there are no such experiences involved in The Son. It’s plain torture, cruelly manipulative yet also hopelessly underwritten, once taken out of the theatre, into the light. There is no depth or backstory to any of the characters and none of these actors have the presence to overcome that (although, in the film’s best bit, Anthony Hopkins appears again for a few minutes as Peter’s beastly old dad – another Anthony – to suggest that man hands on misery to man, while incidentally maintaining product continuity).

Zeller, as I realised when I interviewed him shortly before The Father opened in the West End, is a true believer in the experience of shared, heightened emotion that theatre can offer. To stir that emotion, he’ll do what it takes, from Pinterish eruptions of brute aggression in otherwise inconsequential dialogue to employing the crassest melodrama throughout. For those who value that experience as much as he does, there’s no foul play there. But seeing such stuff on film, the medium that has succeeded theatre, exposes it utterly.

“The Son” is in cinemas from 17 February

[See also: Dementia drama The Father is a campaign of disorientation]

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This article appears in the 15 Feb 2023 issue of the New Statesman, Why the right is losing everywhere