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The Father

Released 2020. Director: Florian Zeller

IN A MODESTLY DECORATED LONDON FLAT, AN OLD MAN is visited by his daughter. He tells her he’s fired the caregiver because she stole his watch. His daughter tells him she’s moving to Paris. After she leaves, he sees a strange man in another room who claims to be his son-in-law. The daughter returns but she’s a different woman from before.

If you didn’t know what The Father is about before you see it, you might think at this point it’s a mystery thriller of some sort. The old man Anthony (so named because the screen role is written with Anthony Hopkins in mind) is confused. Who are these people and why do they claim to be his family and saying this is not his flat but theirs? Is there something sinister going on? Are these intruders trying to scam an old man? Why does the daughter look different?

You’ll soon figure out this is not about smokescreens or elaborate set-up in some detective mystery about impostors and assumed identities. The Father is about something more real, and much more scary.

Anthony has dementia. He forgets, and he mind creates his own (un)reality, an intermingling of the real and imaginary. It is, in a way, also about identity. About losing your sense of identity and the inability to remember and retain the identities of those around.

Because the movie is seen through the eyes of Anthony, we are carried along in his disorienting experience. We go through each encounter participating in Anthony’s growing frustration and incomprehension. Why does my daughter Anne look different? Who is this man who claims to be her husband? I’m sure I’ve never met him before in my life. And where the bloody hell is my watch?

Oftentimes in movies about physical or mental afflictions, we see the protagonist from another person’s perspective. Similarly themed movies such as Iris (2001, starring Judi Dench) and Away From Her (2006, starring Julie Christie) are both outstanding dramas seen partly from the viewpoint of the spouse. The pre-dominant use of the first-person narrative in The Father allows us to live vicariously for a moment the haze of helpless bewilderment those suffering from the condition are unable to convey.

The shifting perspectives, occasionally intersecting events are brilliantly edited in an organic flow, like a thought process. Anthony’s mind is mirrored in the many rooms in his flat. He enters a room and the scene might be different. He turns a corner and he sees a person he doesn’t recognise. The set design changes very subtly, as if certain details have escaped Anthony’s mind.

Sometimes Anthony doesn’t recognise his daughter Anne, played by Olivia Colman, because Anne appears looking like Olivia Williams, who also turns up one day as his new caregiver, a completely different person from the caregiver the day before, played by Imogen Poots. Mark Gatiss and Rufus Sewell complete the merry-go-round of faces orbiting in and out of Anthony’s sight, as Anthony tries to remember if the man is Anne’s husband, a man at his nursing home, or a stranger. The changing faces is a painful manifestation of Anthony’s crumbling mental state. He keeps wondering why his other daughter Lucy hasn’t visited. From the look on Anne’s face we know a chunk of history is now a blank space in Anthony’s memory.

Hopkins’ ability to make his struggles feel immediate and intimate generates deep pathos. Anthony exists in every scene, whether he’s intensely present or whether his mind is unmoored momentarily. In the movie’s final minutes, Hopkins shows us a defenceless Anthony in an emotionally unguarded moment that just about squeezes your heart dry. The 83-year-old veteran gives another master-class performance and deserves every acting award with a name.

Holding her own against Hopkins, Olivia Colman brings compassion and calmness. We feel her strain and mental exhaustion even as she puts up a brave face negotiating the challenges of looking after a loved one whose mind is deteriorating.

The cruelty of dementia stripping away the mental acuity of a parent will be difficult for some to watch. The Father is an earnest and fearless dive into a family situation no one wants to find themselves in, sensitively and affectionately told.


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