Florian Zeller’s The Father is more than just your typical family drama. Family drama isn’t even an apt description for it.
Anne (Olivia Colman) visits her 80-year-old father, Anthony (Anthony Hopkins), who’s living in an apartment alone in London. He had just chased off the recent carer she’s hired for him after accusing her of stealing his watch. Anne reminds him patiently that he may have left it in his hidden spot in the bathroom.
Anthony has dementia, and though he is adamant in explaining to Anne that he can take care of himself, it is clear that he can’t. When Anne finds the watch and returns to Anthony, the room is subtly different. There’s a slight strangeness to it: the afternoon sun reflects on the room, but it’s as if the day has just started for Anthony. A stranger appears and introduces himself as Paul (Mark Gatiss/Rufus Sewell), Anne’s husband, a familiar watch on his wrist catching Anthony’s attention. All of a sudden we’re not sure if the watch has been found or stolen by Paul. This doubt stays with us as we move through each room, a palpable change in its design and another person introducing herself as Anne confusing us even further. This sense of disorientation stays all throughout the film as we follow Anthony’s struggle with the illness.
I adore films adapted from plays because the story is given a more textured feeling. The world goes beyond the limits of the stage and the editing becomes vital in transitioning a narrative. Zeller crafts it impressively. We never really leave the house, but the world Anthony inhabits tosses and turns into whole new worlds and memories. It’s upheaved and stripped every waking turn, showing us the state of disorientation he lives in. It’s terrifying.
Often, films focusing on dementia communicate the melodrama of coping with the illness (The Notebook, Still Alice). Here Zeller shows us the horror of its manifestations from the perspective of a man losing bits of him and his memories. The house constantly changes, time doesn’t exist, and the memories of our own lives and events of the day blend to form a confusing situation to wake up to. He holds on to the two constant things left in his life: his watch and Anne, which we know now will slowly dissolve and blend along with the memories, waiting to be washed away.
There’s so much to say about turning the apartment into a character in itself. Aside from Coleman and Hopkins, this film’s strength is in its flawless editing and production design. Hopkin’s house is alive with the memories and feelings of his own. It’s bright when he’s happy; dark and empty in his state of disorientation. Paintings go missing and people become other people. There’s a creeping sense of horror as it goes on and the house strips away into the current state of his life: alone in a nursing home with no Anne and no watch. Even then, in its very final scene, there’s doubt if this is really what it is; this terrifying inability to perceive one’s own personal memories and sense of time brings a deep-seated grief. Anthony’s attachment to his watch, the only real thing left that he can grasp, is missing once again as time slips away from him and he’s left trying to assemble fragments of it.
There’s a certain kind of devastation in watching someone you love slowly turn into a living ghost. Colman shows us a woman trapped in a situation of caring for a relative who may or may not have been cruel to her in the past, while managing her own life. Colman is intricate, her eyes brighten up, tears flow, and her smile turns hollow with such delicacy, that she’s on par with Hopkins. Together, they’re a joy to watch. There’s never a misstep to it. Her husband/lover, Paul (Sewell/Gatiss) isn’t as patient as she is and eventually goads her into putting Anthony in a nursing home.
Anthony Hopkins is still a force to be reckoned with. He’s charming to his new carer (Imogen Poots) who looks a lot like his daughter Lucy, while occasionally cruel to Anne. I suppose I’m also glad I didn’t have to see this in the cinema: I can imagine the immersive experience of watching one of your greatest fears on a big screen hitting too close to home.
Zeller’s The Father is a devastating study on a man losing himself to an illness, but it’s done meticulously and humanely. The greatest horrors in life are often the ones which we cannot control; there’s only a tight grip to what tethers us here.