In the latter years of my grandfather’s life, he began to exhibit some mild signs of dementia but, mercifully, it never deteriorated beyond that. He wandered into confusion, but never drifted so deep that he couldn’t be reeled back. Florian Zeller’s The Father is all about that tragic drift, inexorable and all-consuming, memories and perceptions tossed into irreconcilable disarray by waves too unexpected to brace for and too potent to stop.
Powerful films have been made about the fragility of the human mind and its descent into dementia, but none has ever so effectively placed the viewer into a state of helpless disorientation. Zeller, adapting his stage play with Oscar-winning scribe Christopher Hampton, crafts an altogether immersive experience, endlessly provocative in its formal conjuring of mental deterioration and deeply haunting as we slip further into the fray. The perspective shift is stunning in its immersion, for the film’s construction prevents the audience from assuming its standard place as spectator.
Memory loss is a recurring theme in narrative film, but never from the inside. These stories most often focus on those witnessing their loved one slip away, creating an inherent barrier between the film and the audience. We are witnesses from the outside, and therefore made to feel pity. The Father removes that barrier by placing us inside the unraveling mind. We can’t feel pity because we are too busy trying to determine where we are and what just happened.
We share that sense of encroaching disorientation with Anthony (Anthony Hopkins), stubborn and defiant, desperate to maintain his independence even as he can’t seem to remember something as simple as where he placed his watch. Anthony is visited daily by his daughter, Anne (Olivia Colman), though she is in the process of hiring a more permanent full-time caregiver. Anthony fiercely opposes the idea, insisting he’s in no need of such frequent monitoring; when he turns on the charm in a meeting with a prospective caregiver (Imogen Poots), it’s certainly a ploy to convince her, or himself, of his enduring vitality.
Most important to Anthony is that he get to stay in his beloved flat…although wait a minute, is it his flat? Small details seem to shift over time – the kitchen looks different, the elegant painting hanging above the fireplace is there one minute and gone the next. Spaces feel familiar but different. Conversations play out and replay again. Phrases are reused in different contexts. The fabric of Anthony’s reality – and therefore, our perception of the film’s reality – seems to be subtly morphing in real time. He clings to his residual agency even as the world around him seems to be slipping from his grasp, and since he is our conduit as viewers, we suffer a vicarious bewilderment.
Zeller and Hampton’s screenplay is vicious in its sophisticated audience sabotage, knowing that we will enter the film assuming a straightforward story and then subverting that assumption at every turn. It would be a cruel trick in a more cynical context, but The Father is a film of grace and empathy, gently aligning the audience with its protagonist. We could piece together the film’s fractured chronology like a puzzle, but that would be missing the point. That fracture is the film’s essence, and our confusion its most profound purpose.
That confusion is reinforced in the film’s craft, so impeccable by virtue of how subtly it tilts our perspective. Beyond the graceful anarchy of the screenplay structure, the film’s spatial disorientation is elegantly, and therefore insidiously, woven into the film’s formal environment via Peter Francis’ production design. It works in tandem with Yorgos Lamprinos’ editing, which seamlessly navigates through the off-kilter filmic environments so that we are in a constant memory loop, questioning the nature of what we are seeing from one moment to the next. While it’s easy to see how The Father could originate on the stage, the cinematic context is its most powerful expression.
Hopkins’ performance is a brilliant achievement, projecting bombastic self-assurance as, internally, he is drowning in self-doubt. Colman is also wonderful, in a role that would already be thankless even if it wasn’t further diminished by the audience’s seamless fusion with Hopkins’ character. But even as Zeller builds an environment that is always unreliable, he never loses sight of the person who sees it clearly. Our empathy for Anne is so palpable because we sense that she possesses what we cannot – a true grasp on reality, and an understanding of how tragically it can slip away.