The movies have masterfully exploited viewers’ terror of heights, bats, rats, sharks, spiders and snakes over the years, and for anyone whose greatest fear is growing old and lapsing into frightened confusion, “The Father” will be their “Jaws.”
Not that first-time director Florian Zeller (co-adapting his own play with Christopher Hampton) is making a ghoulish or garish horror show out of a difficult and sensitive subject, far from it. But as Anthony Hopkins masterfully portrays a man slipping further and further into dementia, the film captures the terrifying sensation of not remembering and not understanding the people and places around us, and the helplessness of having to have your reality explained to you.
Hopkins stars as Anthony, who’s rattling around a very large London apartment on his own, much to the consternation of his daughter Anne (Olivia Colman), who’s upset that another home-care nurse has quit after Anthony accused her of being a thief. Anne would like to hire a new nurse for him, and she is talking about moving to Paris to be with a new man in her life.
Or is she still married, to Paul (Rufus Sewell)? And is this Anthony’s flat, or is it Anne’s? And why are Anne and Paul sometimes played by Olivia Williams and Mark Gattis, whom Anthony doesn’t recognize? And did Anne tell Anthony’s doctor that she’s not moving to Paris after all?
Zeller offers a textbook example of translating a stage work to the screen in ways that keep the power of the play alive while also using the tools of cinema. Anthony turns around and discovers that the layout of the apartment is different than it had been a second before. The door to a closet now suddenly opens into the corridor of a hospital. “The Father” almost never goes outdoors, but it keeps changing the rules and the parameters of the indoors, subtly at first, in a way that brings viewers into Anthony’s mounting helplessness.
While Zeller has assembled a top-flight ensemble (which also includes Imogen Poots as a prospective new nurse), this is, with no hyperbole whatsoever, Hopkins’ show from stem to stern, and he rises to the occasion with a performance that will stand out among a stellar, six-decade-long career. Anthony is the ultimate unreliable narrator, and “The Father” never stands outside of his perceptions to show us what’s really going on. Viewers are left to deduce what does and doesn’t happen, and in what order, as the film goes along, and Hopkins absolutely commits to the character’s vision of the world around him.
The editing by Yorgos Lamprinos is unobtrusive but chillingly effective. Perhaps no major film since “mother!” — and this is the only facet that these two movies have in common, apart from similar titles — has so effectively thrust viewers into the free-floating dream reality that takes one dark turn after another. The twists are also supported brilliantly by Ludovico Einaudi’s score. (It’s a big month for Einaudi, whose music also beautifully underpins “Nomadland.”)
“The Father” is an unsettling film, but it’s also a compassionate one; family members of those suffering with dementia can turn to it for an empathetic portrait of how that disorientation must feel on the inside. It’s one of the most disturbing films in recent memory, but it’s both understanding and unforgettable.
“The Father” opens in theaters in New York and Los Angeles Feb. 26, expands nationwide March 12, and premieres on PVOD March 26.