‘The Father’ review: Anthony Hopkins’ powerful portrait of dementia

The acclaimed actor's struggling retiree marks yet another milestone performance

It’s all too rare to see a film about old age that feels authentic, and rarer still to find one as rich and dignified as The Father.

Deliberately unsettling to watch, often upsetting, it’s a deeply personal drama powered by yet another landmark performance from Anthony Hopkins – honest and moving enough to already feel cheapened by all the Oscar talk.

Hopkins plays an 80-something retiree living alone in his posh West London flat – smart, cranky and proud – now dealing with the first signs of dementia. Sometimes his daughter, Anne (Olivia Colman), comes for tea, and sometimes it’s the careers and other family members who visit, all of whom occasionally seem to swap roles, names and faces (Rufus Sewell, Mark Gatiss, Imogen Poots and Olivia Williams).

The Father
Imogen Poots, Olivia Colman and Anthony Hopkins in ‘The Father’. CREDIT: Alamy

There are no gimmicks or camera tricks here to help put us inside Anthony’s glitching mind – no jump cuts, flashbacks or sudden jolts of memory – just a nagging sense of disorientation that makes you distrust everything that’s happening. Actors swap roles; lines are repeated; scenes replay themselves; conversations are picked up halfway through. It’s all quietly confusing but it’s never the main focus – this isn’t a psychological horror, it’s a quiet coda that deliberately hits a few odd black keys to try and help us understand what it must be like to experience the pain and madness of memory loss without ever really wanting to admit that it’s happening.

Playwright and novelist Florian Zeller makes his directorial debut here, adapting his own 2012 play, Le Père, for the screen. The film’s stage roots show in the single interior set – where multiple doors and entrances work the same way they do in a classic farce, played here for confusion instead of comedy – but it finds a new intimacy in Hopkins’ delicate performance.

As brilliant as usual, maybe more so here than ever, Hopkins makes dementia look genuinely frightening without ever surrendering to it. This isn’t King Lear raging at clouds (as Hopkins has done a dozen times before), this is a man slowly feeling the ground disappear beneath him without ever daring to look down. Hopkins is always at his best when he’s doing very little (not the lip-smacking theatrics of The Silence Of The Lambs, but the broken stillness of The Remains Of The Day) and here he’s never been more restrained. Some of the most devastating moments in The Father come from watching him trying to ignore something odd we all know he just noticed – maybe trying to convince himself that he was wrong, maybe putting on a strong front for his family – all in the slightest flicker of an expression that barely changes.

The Father
Hopkins plays a man refusing to surrender to dementia. CREDIT: Alamy

Colman, in particular, is also wonderful at showing us what’s going on outside of Anthony’s head (with family and friends struggling to hide their own pain as they try to brave what’s slipping away in front of them), but The Father is every inch Hopkins’ film – reeling between rage and vulnerability with frightening honesty.

As a drama, it’s powerful stuff. But as a way of understanding the real fears and insecurities that creep into the mind of anyone suffering from dementia, it’s devastating – likely almost unbearable for anyone who’s ever had a family member go through the same thing. After a year spent not being able to hug your elderly relatives, and with mental health issues on the rise after lockdown, this is a tough watch – but an important one.

Details

  • Director: Florian Zeller
  • Starring: Anthony Hopkins, Olivia Colman, Imogen Poots
  • Release date: 11 June 2021 (video on demand)
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