movie review

The Father Is a Devastating Close-up of a Mind That’s Beginning to Fray

Olivia Colman and Anthony Hopkins. Photo: SEAN GLEASON/SONY PICTURES CLASSICS

Anthony (Anthony Hopkins) has come unstuck in time. He can never seem to find his watch, and he suspects that someone has taken it — maybe one of the women hired to be his caregivers or the man he encounters in the living room who claims to be married to his daughter. Inevitably, it turns out to be in the bathroom, where he has always hidden his valuables, a habit that’s not nearly as secret as he seems to think it is. Anthony’s desire to enforce order on the day is countered by the way that the hours keep slipping by him; he’ll still be in his pajamas when he finds himself being asked to sit down to dinner. His daughter, Anne (Olivia Colman), will tell him things, like that she’s met someone and that she’s going to Paris to be with him. But when he brings the move up later, she has no idea what he’s talking about. More frighteningly, sometimes she looks like another person entirely (and is played by another, Olivia Williams) who still calls him “Dad” and wants to know why he’s looking at her that way. All he can do is mutter about how there’s something funny going on, a comment that does little to capture the scope of his disorientation.

The Father is the directorial debut of French novelist and playwright Florian Zeller, which he adapted from his own play with the help of Christopher Hampton. It’s an intimately scaled drama that manages to be terrifying, unfolding as it does primarily from the unmoored perspective of someone in serious cognitive decline. What’s so nightmarish about Anthony’s situation is that he retains just enough of himself to understand that something is terribly wrong. He runs up against the walls of his own constrained existence, feeling loss and panic and rarely able to pin down why. When the film opens, he’s living alone in the London apartment he bought three decades before, a spacious, handsomely appointed place with fawn-colored walls. He has already chased off the latest caregiver hired by Anne to look after him, insisting that he’s fine, and for a moment, he seems that way. Then he loses track of the conversation. By the next scene, it starts to seem as though maybe this apartment isn’t his; maybe he has moved in with Anne and doesn’t remember.

The Father is assembled like a puzzle box, its chronology curling in on itself in cunning ways. Certain details — a chicken dinner, a divorce, the arrival of a new home aide named Laura (Imogen Poots), a conversation about nursing homes, Paris — keep returning, making it unclear if we’re in the past or present. The constant is heartbreak: As the film moves along, it starts dipping more and more into Anne’s point of view, and it becomes evident that she’s being swallowed whole by her efforts to care for her aging parent. Her father knows that she has a husband, sometimes, while at other times he’s surprised to find a man he doesn’t recognize in the house — one who’s played by Rufus Sewell in certain scenes and Mark Gatiss in others. Anne’s husband is a lot less patient with Anthony than Anne is. It’s possible we already know what happens to this marriage. It’s possible we’re told the ending of the movie in the very first scene, though it doesn’t matter to Anthony, who exists in the moment in the most anxiety-inducing way possible.

Some plays feel airless and constrained when brought to the screen, but the claustrophobia of The Father — which rarely leaves the apartments and, eventually, health-care facilities in which it’s primarily set — works in its favor. These high-ceilinged spaces serve as the backdrop for two astounding and admirably unsentimental performances. Whatever the relationship between Anne and Anthony was like before his dementia, his condition has only made the cracks in their connection more apparent.

As Anne, Colman offers up shattered smiles and extends endless patience while entertaining a dark fantasy of smothering Anthony in his sleep. As Anthony, Hopkins leans into the character’s capacity for cruelty as well as his vulnerability, working himself into a crescendo of outrage or cutting Anne to the quick with accusations of theft or by insisting that her sister — whose absence he laments with the blitheness of someone who has forgotten what happened — was always his favorite. Hopkins, who shows no signs of slowing down at 83, has always been capable of exuding authority and distinction, but as Anthony, he deftly toggles between bluster and vulnerability. Anthony may not have been an especially warm figure in his prime, but Hopkins makes it painfully clear that dementia is stripping him of any dignity. Masterful and agonizing, The Father is a gorgeously crafted film about a doomed arrangement entered into with love, even though it can only end in tragedy.

*This article appears in the March 1, 2021, issue of New York Magazine. Subscribe Now!

The Father Is a Devastating Close-up on Dementia