The Father
"Zeller elegantly and scarily fuses dream logic with markers of past trauma." | Photo: Courtesy of Sundance Institute/Sean Gleason

Based on director Florian Zeller’s French play (Le Père), The Father (screenplay by Christopher Hampton and Zeller) proudly embraces qualities usually found on the stage. A finely tuned interchange between a limited amount of characters in a stable set that transforms with the actions.

Anthony Hopkins and Olivia Colman star in the ever-evolving relationship as father Anthony and his daughter Anne. Rufus Sewell, Olivia Williams, Imogen Poots and Mark Gatiss round out the splendid cast in this chamber piece of memory lost and found. The Father received four 2021 Golden Globe nominations (Best Picture Drama; Best Actor Drama Anthony Hopkins; Best Screenplay, and Best Supporting Actress Olivia Colman).

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Garrulous Anthony is suffering from dementia, but instead of watching him solely through the eyes of his daughter, our perspective switches inconspicuously. Is the “great watch caper” a game played regularly? Time is warped in The Father as it works in a dream. Is this what memory loss feels like? Covering up his own insecurities by viciously attacking those around him, Anthony’s fighting spirit is more than intact. He refuses the carers Anne arranges, his “pardon me for breathing” oozes passive-aggressive despair.

Zeller elegantly and scarily fuses dream logic with markers of past trauma. Anne’s younger sister, a painter and clearly daddy’s darling, is vividly present in her absence. When time structures delve into the cyclical, we better watch for signposts: the blue plastic shopping bags, the chicken, the mid-century chairs, a fork taken along for defence.

When a man called Paul shows up, we are just as confused as dad. We are in his shoes, his dementia is ours. Or is there something else going on? Menacing and calm, straight out of a horror movie or a Pinter play, the strange man (Gatiss) insists that he lives here and has been married to Anne for ten years. It takes Anthony less than a minute to throw his child under the bus to placate the man he didn’t know existed. “She’s not very bright, not very intelligent,” he says and that “she got that from her mother.”

From the window of his apartment (or is it his daughter’s? Paul’s? the doctor’s?) Anthony sees a shop called Avalon, like the Arthurian Island. Another mysterious isle where identities merge may also come to mind, namely Martin Scorsese’s Shutter Island. Cinema resurrects and transforms. The blue bags and Anne in a blue silk blouse, upset in her kitchen, with a blue Le Creuset pot on the stove behind her - production designer Peter Francis gives subtle hints trapped in the objects themselves.

Was Anthony a tap dancer, as he tells Laura, the new carer (Poots), or was he an engineer? Hopkins’ performance is never just one thing. He oscillates between feeble and mean, cold-blooded and stunned-to-the core within no time. “You weren’t kidding when you said he had his ways” says Laura. Colman’s worried expressive face exposes the daughter’s torment as old pain mingles with new pain. It is obvious that he wasn’t the kindest to her before the dementia kicked in. While riding on an elevator together, the father compliments his daughter’s haircut. Her happiness about this tiny recognition is gut wrenching.

During a second round of the “watch caper”, Anthony asks possibly Anne’s husband (Sewell) about the wristwatch he has on. It is a marvellously absurd setup. Try asking the person across from you casually about a piece of jewellery. “Is it yours?” “Did you buy it?” “Do you happen to have a receipt?” Hopkins is at his devilish best. Anne irons her father’s shirts and in a heartbreaking sequence aids him in putting on his brown sweater. He is returning to childhood when getting dressed all by yourself was an ordeal and an accomplishment to look forward to in the future.

Carrots peeled into a colander. Before dinner and after dinner coil like a Möbius strip. From the rear window you can watch other couples. The painting of the girl in the red skirt turns into the emblem of home. Is Paul Death? A Death who reads the paper and sits in a fauteuil and drinks red wine? “Little Daddy,” used to be what Lucy called Anthony. Now Anne uses the diminutive, like Greta Garbo’s “Little Father” in Lubitsch’s Ninotchka. Dressed in pyjamas, we are more vulnerable. Is the worst version the truth?

“I’m losing all my leaves,” says Anthony to Katherine (Williams). Ashes to ashes, we become trees. Parent has become child. The final cry is for mother.

Reviewed on: 18 Feb 2021
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The Father packshot
Anthony is 80 years old. He lives alone in London and refuses the caregivers that his daughter tries to impose upon him. Yet his need for help is becoming more pressing.
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Director: Florian Zeller

Writer: Christopher Hampton, Florian Zeller

Starring: Anthony Hopkins, Olivia Colman, Mark Gatiss, Imogen Poots, Rufus Sewell, Olivia Williams

Year: 2020

Runtime: 97 minutes

Country: UK

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