Review: The Father

I had no problem with Anthony Hopkins winning the Best Actor Oscar for his performance in Florian Zeller’s screen adaptation of his own play. I saw all the other nominated performances, and only Hopkins’ stood out. Everyone else, including odds-on favorite Chadwick Boseman, did exactly what they were supposed to do in their respective movies. Hopkins, however, not only transcended Zeller’s occasionally gimmicky dramatization of a man confronting dementia, but he brought out his character’s true personality, something the script didn’t necessarily support. If the point of Zeller’s realization was to place the viewer in the main character’s mind, there was always going to be the danger of feeling doubly estranged from the character, but Hopkins’ careful focus on the kernel of the role’s humanity gave the viewer something to grasp, and once you were in his grip, it was difficult to avoid the horror of the situation.

Hopkins plays Anthony, so named because Zeller wrote the screenplay with Hopkins in mind. Unfamiliar with the original French play or the subsequent French movie version that, according to various reviews, seems very, very different from this English version (co-adapted by Christopher Hampton, himself an acclaimed playwright), I have no idea what kind of adjustments Zeller made in order to accommodate Sir Anthony, but the character is firmly within the actor’s wheelhouse: a retired engineer-cum-civil-servant who lives in a lovely London flat surrounded by objects of good taste and doted upon by a daughter, Anne (Olivia Colman), who clearly adores him and only wants him to be happy. In the opening scenes, she tries to set him up with a new home helper (Imogen Poots) in the hopes that he will be easier with her than he was with past helpers. Though this premise is fairly standard for stories that address the indignities of growing old, the various tensions at play—the hushed anxiety beneath Anne’s polite veneer, Anthony’s overbearing flirtatiousness, and the new recruit’s difficulty in navigating between them—is handled so adroitly that you leave the sequence in a state of acute unease that Zeller and Hopkins then exploit to the fullest.

Borrowing from the horror-suspense playbook, Zeller’s direction forces the viewer to question what’s reality and what isn’t, though even that fairly trite approximation doesn’t quite get a handle on the emotional complexities at play. At almost every step, we have to wonder not only whether the people Anthony encounters are really who they say they are, but if this place that seemed so comfortably his really is his. It’s not so much that Zeller masters the art of meaningful contradictions, but that he understands how the human mind naturally reacts to them. He and Hopkins evoke terror and sadness by denying us the comfort of continuity. What’s really horrifying is how inevitable it all seems.

Now playing in Tokyo at Toho Cinemas Chanter Hibiya (050-6868-5001), Toho Cinemas Shinjuku (050-6868-5063), Bunkamura Le Cinema Shibuya (03-3477-9264).

The Father home page in Japanese

photo (c) New Zealand Trust Corporation as Trustee for Elarof Channel Four Television Corporation Trademark Father Limited F Comme Film Cine-@ Orange Studio 2020

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