“The Father” opens with two strikes against it. It’s based on a play, and filmed plays usually have a stagey, confined quality that frustrates and limits cinema’s wide range of visual possibilities. That may be the reason two of 2020’s highly touted films—“Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom” and “One Night in Miami”—were denied Oscar nominations for Best Picture. Then there’s the subject matter—dementia—depressing to a fault, its sad, destructive, and inevitable trajectory well-known and much feared—and a topic arguably amply covered in such films as “Supernova” (2020), “Still Alice” (2014), “The Savages” (2007) and “Amour” (2012).
That said, Florian Zeller’s production is masterful. The French playwright, known for black comedy, wrote the play and directs the film, his first feature. (“The Father” is nominated for Best Picture and Zeller for Best Adapted Screenplay, but he was not nominated for Best Director.) Zeller’s success at avoiding that third strike owes much, of course, to the Oscar-nominated acting. As Anthony, the 84-year-old protagonist, Anthony Hopkins is at his King Lear best: authoritative and addled, manic and depressed, paranoid and trusting, irritating, mean and somehow likeable, at once confident in his ability to take care of himself and yet obviously in need of care and assistance. As his daughter Anne, Olivia Colman is just as good at negotiating the contradictions of her role: overwhelmed caregiver, the less favored of Anthony’s two daughters (rather than Lear’s three) and hence the object of his insults—her loving qualities transferred by her aged father to someone else—and the wife of a husband who’s reached his limits of understanding and tolerance.
Yet the film succeeds not because the acting is marvelous, as important as that is, but because of the production—which is incomprehensible. Although the film is mostly set, like a play, in a large London flat, there may be two, very similar apartments, differing in their furnishings, and even a third space inherent in these two. Anne is not married, and yet she is; she’s going off to Paris, abandoning her father, but she isn’t; and her husband, Paul, appears as two different actors, one of whom is also a doctor named Bill. Laura, hired as a “carer” (caregiver), also appears as a nurse, played by a different actress, who also plays a second version of Anne. Some scenes feature lines of dialogue repeated precisely as they were delivered in an earlier scene—and which may not have been said at all—but by a different actor. A face may or may not have been slapped. Ludovico Einaudi’s music contributes too, with sudden shifts between the non-diegetic (background music, often overly loud) and the diegetic (music that a character—Anthony—is listening to; we are inside Anthony’s head).
It’s only natural to want to make sense of all this, in the way that filmgoers exiting Christopher Nolan’s “Memento” (2000) were forced to (or enjoyed) finding the “truth” in the film’s two story lines, one running forward in time, the other—more revealing—backward. Last year’s “I’m Thinking of Ending It” (a Charlie Kaufmann film) offered a similar challenge, with its ungrounded, unreliable narrative. “The Father” refuses to make it possible for us to know.
The effort to order the disordered—to figure out, for example, what apartment we’re in, and when—is understandable. But it can’t succeed—at least not fully—because the source of the disorder is Anthony, and his dysfunctional, dementia-riddled mind. It’s Anthony who’s befuddled by the apartment(s)/spaces, Anthony who can’t keep his daughters straight, Anthony who can’t remember if Anne is married, or leaving for Paris. In a sense, Anthony is directing the film. Our disorientation is his. He has lost control of his own narrative; he is—as are we— jolted by decisions of which he has no knowledge.
There’s a larger lesson here, about the elements that make possible a reasonable sense of identity and that, in their absence, deprive Anthony of a dignified existence. One is “things” (or in George Carlin’s telling, “my stuff”), which Anthony increasingly leaves behind as he moves residences and sheds his possessions. Another is time (hours, days, a sense of what the past has been and what the future holds), for which Anthony’s often-lost watch is a metaphor. Still another is physicality: the ability to resist physical abuse or at least incursions into one’s corporal space. Place—a dependable, physical grounding—is especially important, and emphasized in this film. And there’s occupation: Anthony, who had a career as an engineer—now proclaims he was a tap dancer, or a magician in a circus.
It would seem obvious that this is a film about dementia, and it undeniably is. But it may also be using dementia to explore epistemology, a subject that includes the limits of knowledge. Anthony’s limits are extreme, but are they conceptually different from what the other characters experience: what does Paul, or Laura, know about what is going on in Anthony’s mind? What does Anne know about what leaving for Paris will do to her father? Drawing on one especially poignant scene: if Anne’s knowledge of how Anthony experiences himself, his sense of loss, were not partial and flawed, would she have ushered the new caretaker into the kitchen while Anthony stood, protesting and humiliated, in his pajamas?
Stars: 4 (out of 4 stars)
Director: Florian Zeller
Starring: Anthony Hopkins, Olivia Colman
Oscars: Nominated for — Best Motion Picture of the Year; Best Performance by an Actor in a Leading Role (Anthony Hopkins); Best Performance by an Actress in a Supporting Role (Olivia Colman); Best Adapted Screenplay (Christopher Hampton and Florian Zeller); Best Achievement in Film Editing (Yorgos Lamprinos); Best Achievement in Production Design.
Other Awards: 15 wins and 135 nominations to date
Runtime: 97 minutes
Availability: As of now, for rental only and at $19.99, on many platforms, including Amazon Prime, Google Play, Fandango Now; see JustWatch here for more availability.