THE FATHER is a Disorienting and Visceral Depiction of Dementia

Anthony Hopkins leads a stellar ensemble in Florian Zeller’s adaptation of his award-winning stage play

Adapted from his award-winning French play, Florian Zeller’s feature debut The Father follows elderly Anthony (Anthony Hopkins) as he struggles to adapt to a domestic life that seemingly changes in an instant. His daughter, Anne (Olivia Colman), struggles to break the news that she’s found love — and that she plans to cross the English Channel to Paris for good. Her departure means someone else must care for Anthony in her absence — another in a long line of carers he’s somehow scared off. Around a corner, Anthony’s confronted by a man (Mark Gatiss) who claims to be Anne’s husband, and that Anthony’s lifelong flat is actually his. Anne steps in to remedy the situation — but she’s changed into someone else (Olivia Williams). Before Anthony knows it, so has Anne’s husband (Rufus Sewell), and before long, another carer (Imogen Poots) enters Anthony’s life. The flat grows increasingly unrecognizable — and, before too long, so does Anthony’s grasp on reality.

Films about dementia often split their focus between those who are afflicted with it and those who are affected by it. While featuring both roles may make for an impressive actors’ showcase, the end result can be somewhat polarizing. Dementia is an intensely personal disease — one that strips its sufferers of memory, attachment, and identity. Yet films like Amour, Still Alice, and Away From Her (as great as they may be in many other respects) feel like they do the stripping themselves — utilizing characters with Alzheimer’s or dementia who begin fully fleshed out, only to disintegrate into their condition. It’s an effective way to dramatize the effects of these conditions, but one that takes an all-too-literal approach that fosters an uncomfortable marriage between depersonalization and dehumanization.

Zeller’s film, however, takes a refreshing and sobering opposite approach. Rivetingly grounded in Anthony’s perspective through its entire runtime, The Father creates an unpredictable and unreliable world out of what should be familiar territory through practical innovations in cinematography, editing, and production design. The shifts in Anthony’s flat range from slight to profound — from shifts in furniture fabric and the positioning of wall sconces, to the arrangement of a room’s furniture, and even the location of rooms themselves in the flat. Objects shift and change from cut to cut, making Anthony’s world feel increasingly intangible amidst these plentiful details. And for all its unpredictable permutations, the world remains frustratingly familiar to Anthony and his audience–for Zeller’s film, it’s an incredibly visceral visual shorthand for the experience of dementia.

The film’s screenplay, adapted by Zeller and Christopher Hampton, works hand-in-hand with stellar editing by Yorgos Lamprinos to transform an already-lauded stage play into a film that’s as tightly-paced as much as it is a fluid and disorienting blur. Many of The Father’s scenes have an elusive elliptical quality, either circling back to where they began or shifting conflicts so often we aren’t sure where to target our emotions. It’s contradictory in one moment and wildly self-referential the next. One incredible scene is an ouroboros of fraught familial drama that somehow folds in on itself, shifting its beginning, middle, and end in an invisible shell game of writing and editing. Anthony’s reactionary disbelief and anger throughout can’t help but evoke our own.

And yet, there’s still faint glimmers of consistency where we can divulge more information about what might really be “going on.” These little nuggets of truth create something of a puzzle narrative out of The Father — but one whose surprises only further underscore the multiple tragedies at the heart of Anthony’s story.

Our other consistent anchors in the film are the performances by The Father’s terrific ensemble. Regardless of which role they play, Olivia Colman and Olivia Williams are wonderful as daughters who are forced into unwanted positions of care for their father — as is Rufus Sewell, who plays his palpable frustration as a tempting yet ultimately heartless emotion to give into in this situation. At the center, of course, is Anthony Hopkins — in a film whose circumstances are ever-volatile, he remains our deeply empathetic emotional surrogate. His Anthony refuses any semblance of depersonalization or even victimhood, even as whatever remains familiar fumbles increasingly out of reach. We never lose sight of Anthony’s sense of personality or identity — instead, it’s the world that’s becoming nightmarish and unbearable. It’s a rare, terrifying, and desperately needed shift in perspective when it comes to depicting dementia on film, one that Hopkins dedicates himself to with a trademark unflinching gravitas and humility.

As much of a disquieting horror film as it is a deeply-felt drama, The Father finds an inherent, disturbingly cinematic vehicle out of its protagonist’s psychological instability — yet never at the cost of Anthony’s dignity or sense of identity.

The Father opens in theaters on March 12th courtesy of Sony Pictures Classics.

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