Before I left for the US, my grandfather went into an elderly home. As my sister and I had moved overseas, it was just my mother and brother who cared for him. I remember my brother telling me that my grandfather would sob at the thought of dying in that place.
Even today, I can still remember him standing in the driveway when I was saying goodbye, watching me as I walked towards my car, and when I looked back, I suspected that I might not see him again. His incredible life had led to him being in this place, and his feeling of being trapped was unmistakable.
In The Father, Anthony Hopkins plays an older man who can no longer care for himself but isn’t aware of the decline of his mental capacity. His mind obscures reality, and director Florian Zeller brilliantly captures the confusion and instability through deliberate and effective editing. Shot predominantly within the confines of an apartment, Zeller utilizes every space, changing minor details like bedspreads or the locations of paintings to disorient viewers and to ask how much we can trust this man’s perception of his care.
The Father adds a new perspective to a sub-genre that includes Amour and Away From Her. The narrative becomes a horror film that relentlessly keeps you guessing what is real. As details emerge and the elderly man’s reluctance for help turns aggressive and sometimes pitiful, we feel his daughter’s entrapment, trying to maintain control of her life while giving her father the support he needs.
The film holds a palpable tension as Anthony Hopkins and Olivia Colman convincingly portray this father-daughter relationship and how she manages to keep his life together as best she can.
We meet Anne (Olivia Colman) as she enters an apartment and determinedly searches for her father, Anthony (Anthony Hopkins), finding him in a chair in the living room listening to an Opera. She’s mad at him for scaring off his last carer Angela, whom he suspected of stealing his watch. Anthony sings the same tune repeatedly, ‘I don’t need her, and I don’t need anyone!’ When he’s calmed down, Anne tells him she is leaving London and moving to Paris with her new boyfriend, and he needs a consistent carer. Anthony turns grim and asks, ‘What will become of me?’
We next see Anthony alone in the home preparing a cup of tea. The camera holds steady as he slowly fills the kettle with water, turns it on, and stands idly by the counter until he hears the front door slam shut. He ventures around the apartment and finds a man (Mark Gatiss) sitting in the living room. Anthony asks who he is, and the man responds that he is Paul, Anne’s husband of ten years. Confused, Anthony tries to make sense of the information and whether to trust the man he has never seen before or his flailing mind. He becomes irate and demands he will not leave his home, but Paul interrupts and mentions it’s Anne’s home.
Anthony’s disorientation sends the film into a series of vignettes where the audience and Anthony are struggling to comprehend reality. Anne introduces Anthony to a new nurse, Laura (Imogen Poots), whom Anthony contends looks distinctly similar to his daughter Lucy. Olivia Colman’s Anne grounds the film in some version of reality amongst the chaos, and we see her help Anthony in every way possible, and it’s an often thankless task.
She listens to her actual new boyfriend Paul’s (Rufus Sewell) dismissal of Anthony and desires to put him into an elderly home, but Anne is doing the best she can. In one lovely moment, Anthony and Anne ride in an elevator together. With unexpected clarity, he looks at Anne, telling her that her hair looks beautiful, and Colman’s eyes widen with adoration as she beams with joy. It’s a small moment with considerable implications: these comments are rare but no less touching. It’s why she cares for him with such determination.
The screenplay is based on Florian Zeller’s play, and he directs the script he wrote with Christopher Hampton. Time is fluid and challenging. It’s seldom evident when in time we are or what events preceded the ones currently on screen. That the film feels deliberately orchestrated is a feat in itself because there’s never a doubt that we aren’t in capable hands.
Zeller encourages the most visceral, open-hearted performance from Anthony Hopkins in recent memory. When Anthony meets Laura, he tells her that he used to be a tap dancer. Hopkins hops onto each foot in a small routine, throwing his hands up to end in a comical pose. Laura giggles sincerely, and Anne watches, amazed to see her father so charismatic. Hopkins is so convincing in the role that when his smile turns into a sneer and he tells Laura he despises her habit of laughing inanely, it feels like a punch to the gut. It’s the mixture of emotions swirling in each scene that catapults this film beyond its dramatic moments and into the horrors of watching someone lose their equilibrium.
What remains at the end of The Father are the moments of clarity where Anthony remembers essential details about his life. He tells Laura that he loved his daughter Lucy more than anything. Anthony would take her in his arms, and they would be glued together. He smiles to himself and dissolves into the memory.
My brother gave my grandfather the love, support, and attention he needed. It was never easy, but it does take someone remarkable to care for someone losing their stability. In the end, we do the best we can.