The Father (2020)

When the time comes to make one’s way through the annual bunch of Oscar nominated films, I treat the task very much like Pokemon, I gotta catch ’em all! My task for this year is nearly complete, with one of the few ‘major category’ films still to check off the list being Florian Zeller’s The Father. With nods in six different categories including Best Picture, Best Actor and Best Supporting Actress, everything seemed to point to the film being a real quality event, so I was excited to get stuck in.

Based on Zeller’s 2021 play La Père, The Father tells the story of the relationship between dementia sufferer Anthony (Anthony Hopkins) and his daughter Anne (Olivia Colman). Presenting a very fragmented, time unspecific, non linear style of narrative, the film plays with audience perception to really hammer home the disorientation and frustration of what dementia can do to a family, both on the side of the sufferer and the carer.

I won’t beat around the bush here. The gentle poster and familiar acting faces in The Father might lull you into a false, Sunday afternoon sense of security about what the film is going to be, but this movie feels much more like a horror film than a melodramatic weepy. There have been plenty of dementia focused films before (Still Alice comes to mind) that tell a very structured start to finish tale from diagnosis onwards, and whilst many of those are great, what the audience gets is a very ‘looking in from the outside’ view of proceedings.

What The Father does so effectively with a number of different techniques and devices is throw you right in at the deep end, aligning the viewing experience much more with Anthony’s disorientation than a ‘sound minded’ onlooker. Through the use of different actors playing the same characters at certain times, to set pieces repeating themselves and looping around the start again with a completely perspective, what is going on here in these small apartment settings is actually quite masterful. It isn’t until you take the time to digest it afterwards that you realise exactly how impressive it is.

Something I’ve mentioned before on this blog that I really hate it when a movie indulges in disorientation tactics that serve not to enhance the story but merely muddy it. The Father gets this balance just right. There are hints of Charlie Kaufman at times, but the narrative never feels like it has jumped off the diving board into deep, impenetrable waters like, for example, I’m Thinking Of Ending Things. As a viewer, you are concerned and confused at all of the right times, but importantly the story never becomes so distant that you choose to just let it go. What you do get, is a terrifying look at what dementia does to people both suffering with it and caring for it. What makes it even scarier is that The Father is not a story about a weird, mind altered dystopian future, it’s about something that millions of people are going through right now, every single minute of every single day.

There is nothing else I can other than I was completely blown away by Anthony Hopkins in this film. Very few actors of his generation are still bringing it like he is here, and with The Two Popes also in recent memory, you could argue that he is doing some of his best ever work in his eighties! As Anthony, Hopkins is at times witty and cognisant, at other times shatteringly vulnerable and detached, the character really gives him the chance to display both his natural charm and charisma and his clearly undiminished talent for real, gritty, poignant dramatic work. In a year that Chadwick Boseman is the clear front runner for a posthumous Best Actor honour, I do really think that Anthony Hopkins could make a late charge if the hype for this movie catches fire at the right moment.

As Anthony’s daughter Anne, Olivia Colman has bagged herself another Oscar nomination, and I’m absolutely living for this second career wave of film domination. Her performance as Queen Anne in The Favourite is one of the best I’ve experienced in the last decade, and though she’s showing us something very different here, the quality is of a similarly high level. Colman has such an emotive face that honestly it doesn’t even feel like acting half of the time. Every tiny emotion is there to see, and the moments when Colman is reacting to unknowing insults from her ailing father are daggers to the heart. There’s no doubting that the film is very much a showcase for Hopkins as the lead character and actor, but his presence in the film wouldn’t have have as much impact if not for the work that Colman is doing alongside him. They are a perfect pairing.

Overall, for me, The Father ranks highly among the other big Oscar players for this year. A heartbreaking drama that really does border on horror at points, not just in the metaphorical horror of dementia but also in the thriller-esque way that the film builds its key scenes. A pair of, I believe, Oscar worthy performances here, and though I think the playing field is more even for Olivia Colman in the rather odd Best Supporting Actress landscape of 2021, don’t discount Anthony Hopkins for an upset. A brilliant piece of drama that is more experimental than you might think, and leaves you emotionally exhausted in all of the best ways.

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