The Father is a painfully potent depiction of mental deterioration

Anthony Hopkins is at his outstanding, Oscar-winning best as a confused and paranoid dementia-sufferer in Florian Zeller’s disquieting debut film.

Anthony Hopkins as Anthony in The Father (2020)

The Father is in UK cinemas from 11 June.

Florian Zeller’s assured, elegantly nightmarish film of his 2012 play – deftly transposed to the screen in collaboration with Christopher Hampton – stretches the conceit of the unreliable narrator to a desolate vanishing point.

Zeller’s stage production was previously the inspiration behind the French film Florida (2015), a relatively breezy take on the vagaries of old age, significant for providing Jean Rochefort with a startling late career high. The Father has done something similar for the octogenarian Anthony Hopkins, providing a somewhat unexpected second Oscar triumph. With a role modified for the screen with Hopkins in mind, this direct adaptation offers a similarly arresting showcase for a veteran’s skillset – a formidable portrayal of an unmoored mind that’s arguably the actor’s finest performance since The Remains of the Day in 1993.

At first, it appears that Zeller is playing things fairly straight. A rare exterior shot tracks Anne (Olivia Colman) en route to the capacious Maida Vale flat where her father, Anthony, stubbornly resides alone. A retired engineer who has dementia, Anthony gripes to Anne about his caretaker, suspecting the theft of his precious watch (the absent timepiece becomes a recurring manifestation of his temporal dislocation).

Olivia Colman as Anne in The Father (2020

It’s shortly after this initial meeting that we’re left as wrong-footed as Anthony is. In subjectively representing his central character’s fogged perception, Zeller deploys a series of increasingly disorienting transitions. Anthony is spooked by the sudden appearance of seeming imposters in his home, while others’ identities get muddled. He imagines being smothered by Anne, and beaten by her husband. The abrupt entrances and exits within the flat’s four walls betray the film’s stage origins; yet they also bear a trace of the uncanny air that informed Robert Altman’s psychodrama Images (1972). The skilful editing, by Yorgos Lamprinos, enhances the disquiet considerably.

So many films detailing mental deterioration are defined by their interior domestic spaces, from Repulsion (1965) to what is apparently The Father’s closest forerunner, Michael Haneke’s Amour (2012). Here, Zeller finds subtle ways to render Anthony’s home ever more unfamiliar: lighting cues, colour changes, camera angles, unexplained omissions. The backgrounds – at first filled with Anthony’s books, music and paintings – dwindle and empty as time goes on, a gradual subtraction of a life’s connective fabric.

Set against these shifting surroundings, Hopkins’s monumental display of confusion and despair is painfully convincing, not least in the film’s wrenching final scenes, which nevertheless close on a contemplative – or perhaps bitterly ironic – image of defiance and dignity.

Further reading

Film of the week: Amour

Commandingly executed as ever, Michael Haneke’s study of love’s ultimate transcendence defies expectations with compassion for its characters and respect for its audience, says Catherine Wheatley.

By Catherine Wheatley

Film of the week: Amour

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