Daddy wasn’t there: all about bad dads and fatherhood at the LFF

Literal fathers, symbolic father figures and ‘the patriarchy’ itself are all over cinema. Paul Ridd takes a look at various fathers in films at this year’s BFI London Film Festival.

8 October 2022

By Paul Ridd

The Son (2022)
London Film Festival

This year’s LFF lineup has its fair share of ‘ideal’ fathers, or at any rate men who imagine they could follow in the footsteps of Hollywood’s definitive nurturing father and protector of what is right, To Kill a Mockingbird’s Atticus Finch. Whether they are successful in the attempt provides the dramatic engine for a wide range of films.

In Florian Zeller’s The Son, Hugh Jackman’s Peter is the model of the hyper successful, nurturing breadwinner, living out domestic bliss with a new wife and baby. That he can’t reckon with his teenage son’s clinical depression is the film’s central irony, a problem that keeps eating away at Peter and his facade of perfection. It’s a poised, exacting film, paced and framed with an almost uneasy level of precision. Yet enormous, complex emotions bubble to the surface as the film heads towards its shocking conclusion – one that feels more philosophically in tune with Philip Larkin than Harper Lee.  

In Living, Oliver Hermanus’s moving remake of the Akira Kurosawa classic Ikiru (1952), a setting switch up from Japan to 1950s London provides a context of stiff-upper-lip restraint and emotional stuntedness in which Bill Nighy’s hyper-reserved Mr Williams can unravel spectacularly after realising his imminent mortality. 

In the face of catastrophic news, Williams embarks on a journey of reawakening that involves connecting with various younger people and quite transparently taking on the role of ‘father figure’. The film’s curiously claustrophobic aesthetic (all shallow focus, fish-eye camerawork and boxy Academy framing) works beautifully in tandem with the nuance and characterisation of the screenplay by Kazuo Ishiguro, writer of perhaps the definitive modern literary exploration of British repression and delusion, The Remains of the Day (1993).

Living (2022)
Ross Ferguson

It’s the film’s short, staccato, rather painful scenes involving Williams’ own son that prove the key to understanding his fervour in the moment, and arguably the film itself. The father-son relationship, so clearly devoid of real emotion and love, forces us to read the rest of Williams’ actions as overcompensation for past failings, where fatherhood to a noxious, uncaring son has clearly failed. 

The impotent paternal viewpoint – this perspective of incomprehension and sense of powerlessness to help, or even refusal to do so – defines so many of the father figures elsewhere in the programme. In Fridtjof Ryder’s striking low-budget debut Inland, Mark Rylance plays the father of a troubled young man at the centre of the film, recently released from psychiatric hospital. His inability to coherently communicate with his son triggers much of the strangeness and nightmare that follows across the film’s short, hypnotic runtime. 

In Martin McDonagh’s beautiful The Banshees of Inisherin, Gary Lydon’s monstrous local policeman Peadar Kearney has an abusive, distrustful relationship with his wayward son Dominic (Barry Keoghan). The dynamic is among the darkest, most impactful elements in the film’s matrix of parables for social and political division on a much larger, national scale. 

Then in Alice Diop’s heartbreaking interrogation of motherhood and matricide in legal thriller Saint Omer, a brief scene in which an utterly ineffectual father takes the witness stand simply and effectively dramatises the abject chaos caused by paternal failure and moral cowardice. 

Love Life (2022)

A literally absent father returns only when his son has actually died in Koji Fukada’s beautiful Love Life, a complex and conflicted depiction of a failed father seemingly determined to reintegrate himself into the life of his estranged family. There’s a symbolic power to Park (Atom Sunada) being also a deaf man in a film so much defined by different types of failed communication in the wake of tragedy. But the trait is also a canny red herring, one which shifts out of the symbolic once we understand Park’s true motivations for returning. Is Park secretly the film’s monster and not its martyr?

Then a monstrous father is the central focus of Mikko Niskanen’s hypnotic, unmissable 1972 Finnish epic Eight Deadly Shots, which screens for the first time in decades in a brand new restoration at the festival. Across the film’s mammoth run time, we learn piece by piece the factors that led an alcoholic husband and father to kill four men.

Eight Deadly Shots (1972)

One of the great heroes and ‘fathers’ of the modern French cinema, Bertrand Bonello, used lockdown to put himself into the mind of his own teenage daughter. His discoveries find strange, fascinating expression in Coma, a hybrid essay-horror film that combines bizarre doll puppetry, Zoom calls and nightmarish visions to achieve something close to a visual realisation of the boredom and horror of lockdown viewed through a teenager’s eyes.  

Film theory meanwhile has reckoned with the ‘law of the father’ and a patriarchal gaze for decades, identifying oppressive visual and systemic regimes by which masculinity maintains supremacy through the films that get made and how they are consumed. Using as a starting point Laura Mulvey’s crucial 1975 essay ‘Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema’, Nina Menkes’ confrontational documentary Brainwashed: Sex-Camera-Power sets out to expose these structuring principles through the use of commentary, pointed use of filmic examples and a range of interviews with female filmmakers, performers and academics.

One Fine Morning (Un beau matin, 2022)

Finally, we find one of the most completely beautiful films in the festival. Our roles as children so often sadly reverse and we frequently become the caregiver – the ‘father’ to our parents – at the end of their lives. In Mia Hansen-Løve’s One Fine Morning, Léa Seydoux’s Sandra wrestles with the new reality of her academic father Georg’s degenerative neurological condition, dealing with his slow, sad journey into a childlike state. It’s testament to the film’s striking formal grace and total integrity of writing and performance that this journey does not feel maudlin or manipulative. Rather, Hansen-Løve has created a film full of warmth, humour and beauty, one which celebrates what has gone or been lost through a vivid sense of its absence. 

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