Film Review: ‘The Father’ Devastates and Horrifies With Its Masterful Depiction of Dementia
A man refuses all assistance from his daughter as he ages. As he tries to make sense of his changing circumstances, he begins to doubt his loved ones, his own mind and even the fabric of his reality.
Director: Florian Zeller
Cast: Olivia Colman, Anthony Hopkins, Mark Gatiss, Olivia Williams, Imogen Poots, Rufus Sewell
Country: UK, France
Runtime: 97 mins
The Father is perhaps the definitive film on dementia. The movie affirms its place among similar classics you never want to watch again for how true-to-life and terrifying its portrayal is. It will be tempting. Masterclass performances, superb editing work, intricate sets and finesses with time all beg for a revisit. However, the existential dread so potently brought forward may simply not be worth experiencing again. This is, in no way, a knock on the film’s quality as much as it asserts itself as a necessary work of art.
The Father centres on Anthony (Anthony Hopkins), an elderly man suffering from dementia. Much to the chagrin and frustration of his daughter Anne (Olivia Colman), he puts up a brave front, rejecting any assistance from caretakers and insists that he can take care of himself. After years of daily check-ins, Anne informs her father that she will be moving to another country to live with her lover. He will either have to accept the help of a caretaker or be moved to a nursing home.
It would be through this shattering piece of news where the film begins its descent into Anthony’s psyche. The Father only has one trick in its playbook: Nothing seen or heard is reliable. One moment Anthony is speaking with Anne’s husband in his flat, and in the next, he is reminded by Anne that she left her husband years before. It only gets more distressing from there. Places slip. Faces slip. Even time itself no longer makes sense.
This approach leads to The Father feeling like an engaging mystery for the most part, although it does feel monotonous by the film’s last third once twists and turns are a given. Yet, for how hauntingly well the film mirrors the experience of both the caretaker and the afflicted, perhaps the frustration is deliberate. Critiquing the film on this front feels like a guilt-ridden experience with how close to home the portrayals can hit.
Indeed, solace will be found in the shared emotions of Anne. Olivia Colman infuses a palpable degree of relatable guilt, remorse and fatigue to the character, torn between her responsibilities as a daughter and her longing to finally get on with her life. These two wants are constantly swayed and tested by the unforgiving whims of her father’s condition. Any glimpses of comfort and heartfelt care radiating from Colman and Hopkins’ chemistry are snatched away by outbursts and confusion.
It feels like a deliberate change from the source material for the actor and the character to share the same name and birthday. That is only the tip of the disorientating iceberg. Anthony Hopkins gives a performance for the ages. The sheer range of emotions — fear, anger, anguish, joy — is dizzying and devastating at every turn. Of it all, the desperation to cling on to what dementia hasn’t widdled away transcends agony and plummets straight into terror.
The film is unremorseful about translating its lead character’s experience to the audience. The only gripes would be with its occasional musical stings to emphasise twists, which felt more at home in an M. Night Shyamalan film. But of all the Academy Awards nominees this year, The Father being placed in the Best Film Editing and Best Production Design categories almost feels unfair.
The editing is impeccable in nailing Anthony’s disorientation, bringing out the emotions of what isn’t or simply cannot be seen by him; seamlessness would be an understatement. We learn just as Anthony relearns. There are absolutely no indications of time skips or switched locales. The film’s stage is exactly of Anthony’s hazy mind.
The set design carries the lyricism of theatre. The intricacies in its subtleties are astonishing, almost telling a story on its own. Most of the film is spent in Anthony’s apartment — or at least that is what he thinks. The flat’s main layout remains similar but there are minute differences enough to frustrate but not sound the alarms. The properness of it all is nagging and tormenting. These tiny changes only grow and fester, eventually bubbling into suffocation just as Anthony finally has a grasp on what little is left of his reality.
The Father is a miserable experience. It so boldly confronts the questions and emotions just about everyone would prefer to avoid. For those who haven’t had to care for a parent or grandparent with dementia, the film asks if they can match Anne’s patience, care and selflessness if the time really does come.
And in time, perhaps, we would have to face the ailment too. Nobody is ready. Nobody can be ready. Just as Anthony constantly obsess over his missing watch, it seems that time itself has abandoned him without warning. The existential dread begs for some semblance of perceptible truth to be pieced together and deciphered, completely forgetting that the movie is more akin to a shattered mirror. There is no fix.
Hardly any other film is better equipped to transpose the experience of living with dementia than The Father. It’s a phenomenal piece of art that does its job too well.
The Father is now in theatres islandwide.