Sadly, as in life, dementia has become an increasingly familiar subject on screen – since Julie Christie in Away From Her (2007) and Julianne Moore in Still Alice (2015), we’ve seen it recently in horror movies (Relic), documentary (Dick Johnson in Dead) and now, through a stunning, Oscar-winning Anthony Hopkins performance, in The Father.
Based on Florian Zeller’s own adaptation of his 2014 Parisian stage play, The Father takes place in a comfortable Maida Vale mansion flat, reminiscent of those rooms in Michael Haneke’s Amour or Yasmina Reza’s Art and The Gods of Carnage (a play which Roman Polanski made into his claustrophobic film Carnage).
The apartment’s occupant is 80-year-old Anthony, played by veteran star Anthony Hopkins, and he seems happy enough in his armchair and cardigan, listening to his classical music. His daughter Anne pops in, full of breezy optimism about a new girl coming to be her father’s carer. Anne is beautifully played by Olivia Colman, with a warmth and loveability you immediately sense might conceal brave yet brittle fronts.
You feel this is a daily routine, during which Anne won’t admit she’s considering a nursing home while patiently enduring the rigmarole of finding yet another new home carer. “The last one,” thunders Anthony, “stole my watch.” The new girl arrives, played with perky goodwill by Imogen Poots. Anthony takes a shine to her and flirts, pouring her whisky and twinkling with charm.
Suddenly the film shifts. The apartment isn’t quite the same and there’s a strange man (Mark Gatiss) sitting there, reading the paper. Anne comes back, but she’s now played by another Olivia, Olivia Williams, and she’s going to cook a chicken. Reality is unravelling, fraying like Anthony’s old cardie.
Seeing Hopkins grapple with his character’s hold on reality, clinging to his own flat and to his own version of his past, is both terrifying and amazing. We admire the craft, the acting, the writing, yet this film probes so many difficult and painful real subjects – why do we want to even watch it?
I think it’s because there is love coursing through every scene. It’s in Colman’s tear-stained looks of pity, lacerating guilt and despair; and it’s in Hopkins’ fear and confusion, pride and desperation not to be misunderstood, not to be deemed crazy, to cling on to his self-respect as a father and whatever it was he did, clearly successfully and respectably, in the past. “I feel like I’m losing all my leaves,” he wails, like King Lear in a storm, reaching for his daughter, for someone to love.
Taking us right into the mind and the frustrations of a man – and daughter – suffering the cruel indignities of dementia, The Father showcases Hopkins’ finest film performance since The Remains of the Day. He made me weep in that one, too.
you can read my interview with Florian Zeller tracing the making of The Father here…