Cinematic Releases: The Father (2020) - Reviewed

French playwright Florian Zeller’s smash hit play Le Père (The Father) first burst onto the stage in 2012 before going on to take home the Molière Award for Best Play.  Considered by many to be ‘the most acclaimed new play of the last decade’, it was made into a film in 2015 called Floride starring the late Jean Rochefort and Sandrine Kiberlain.  As the play began receiving international attention, a most unusual development occurred when Zeller himself would mount an American film adaptation of his own play with his first feature film as a writer-director, The Father.
Starring an ensemble cast prominently featuring Anthony Hopkins, Olivia Colmon, Imogen Poots, Rufus Sewell and Olivia Williams, the film presents a positively devastating portrait of Hopkins as an aging man succumbing to early onset dementia.  While 2021 also recently gave us another dementia film with Viggo Mortensen’s writing-directing debut Falling, Zeller’s film approaches the subject from a completely different angle.  In seemingly real time, as Anthony (Anthony Hopkins) fends off his daughter Anne’s (Olivia Colman) efforts to hire a personal caregiver for him, Anthony and the film slowly begin unraveling as we and Anthony lose track of time, place and person. 

Including but not limited to having the character step into one domain only to happen upon another in the next with the actors changing up roles throughout to represent his growing confusion, the film presents what it feels like to be inside a body whose mind is deteriorating to time as scene after unrelenting scene subtly pulls the rug out from under the viewer.  Think of it as an extremely subtle Lynch, Kon or Aronofsky film that always remains quiet to indicate how Anthony is suffering in silence, unable to convey to those around him the experience of what is happening to him.
Truly deathly heartbreaking and terribly sad, this is one of the finest films of the year that will most certainly ruin your day after watching.  Hopkins is fantastic in the role whose star power never overtakes the performance or character and seeing Hopkins exude feelings of real despair and reverting to a childlike state was one of the most painful sights I’ve ever seen in a movie period.  Equally powerful is Olivia Colman, fresh off of The Favourite and The Crown, who makes her excruciating struggle with her father’s state of mind immediate and raw.  It goes without saying the ensemble performers Rufus Sewell, Olivia Williams and Imogen Poots give excellent performances across the board.  Not a single performer mis steps in this taut and elegantly constructed piece.
For a first-time director, the film is visually stunning with intimate closeups of Hopkins and Colman’s faces interspersed with a handsomely rendered balance of the cleanliness of the apartment Anthony resides in contrasted with the chilly colorless sterility of hospital hallways.  Shot in widescreen by Ben Smithard, The Father makes terrific use of spaces enclosed and wide open, creating an environment that seems familiar but grows ever stranger as Anthony’s dementia intensifies.  Then there’s the original score by Ludivico Einaudi of subtle orchestra strumming interspersed with soft sonic cues that work to wring out the tears like a wet towel being twisted and squeezed.  Emotionally, all the elements work to beat the emotions out of the viewer with the gentle score giving just enough push for us to fall into sorrow.

This was not an easy or happy viewing experience.  Not since Michael Haneke’s Amour or even David Cronenberg’s The Fly has the screen saw such a stark unrelenting portrait of a loved one slowly fading away from within until the person looking back at you doesn’t know you or themselves anymore.  Despite the heaviness of the piece, every performer gives top notch work and Florian Zeller’s transition from novelist and playwright to filmmaker only confirms his status as one of the most exciting voices of creative fiction in our time.  This is a brilliant and beautiful tearjerker made by creative and impassioned voices who have created one of the most searing explorations of the fragile human condition as the cinema screen has ever encountered. 

--Andrew Kotwicki