Written and Directed by Florian Zeller
Co-written by Christopher Hampton
Starring Anthony Hopkins, Olivia Colman and Mark Gatiss
‘A Powerful Dementia Drama’
Dementia is a devastating disease that is rarely depicted realistically in movies. When telling stories of Alzheimer’s patients, Hollywood tends to fall prey to the outsider perspective. Films about the disease are often told from the point-of-views of outer caregivers rather than patients themselves. This approach has created an emotional distance between viewers and disease victims, leading towards misconceptions of the illness. As anyone that has lost their family to Dementia can attest, films about the condition haven’t always shown its true nature. Have you ever wondered how it truly feels to experience the world’s deadliest disease?
In an industry that has always avoided answering this question, Florian Zeller’s latest film “The Father” is an awe-inspiring achievement. An intimate, heartbreaking and profound drama, it immerses viewers into the perspective of an Alzheimer’s victim. With his directorial debut, French playwright Florian Zeller approaches the disease from a place of compassion. Packed with exquisite production values, clever storytelling and powerful performances, it is one of the best movies of 2020. Although “The Father” is undeniably unforgettable, ultimately it isn’t tailored towards everyone. Its disturbing themes may not appeal towards mainstream audiences. Nonetheless, it offers heartwarming entertainment that will satisfy fans of family dramas.
Based on the theatre play, “The Father” follows a forgetful patriarch that struggles to come to terms with his memory loss. Anthony Hopkins stars in the title role as Anthony, a strong-willed senior living with Alzheimer’s disease in his London flat. Despite his concerned daughter Anne’s (Olivia Coleman) aspirations, Anthony refuses all assistance from caregivers and yearns to be left alone. However, Anthony’s life deteriorates when his daughter leaves him alone in his flat. As Anthony’s memory fades, he loses touch with reality.
First-time filmmaker Florian Zeller is no stranger to the topic of Dementia. Zeller is an acclaimed playwright whose 2012 stage production “Le Père” offered a realistic look at the horrors of Dementia. “The Father”, however, marks Zeller’s first feature debut and foray into the disease on the big-screen. It’s the filmmaker’s first attempt to adapt his renowned stage production to the big-screen, but he pulls it off seamlessly. Using captivating cinematography, Zeller draws viewers into the life of an elderly senior that refuses to accept his debilitating illness. Zeller’s decision to shoot the movie mainly in a single confined apartment is risky, but it works tremendously. Working alongside cinematographer Ben Smithard, Zeller successfully utilizes the contained setting to immerse viewers into the disoriented perspective of an Alzheimer’s victim. Zeller excels at immersing viewers into a lonely senior’s illness, and his debut feature is worth watching for this reason alone.
If stories of seniors that face illnesses do not attract your attention, though, there are still plenty of other reasons to see “The Father”. Zeller succeeds at utilizing set design to emulate the experience of progressive memory loss. Assisted by production-designer Peter Francis, Zeller successfully employs changes in the set design to display Anthony’s mental state. For example, Anthony’s apartment constantly transforms throughout the film as his memory worsens over time. Whether it is misplaced paintings or different rearrangements of furniture, the changes in set design immerse viewers into Anthony’s malfunctioning memory. Using this innovative production design, Zeller gives viewers a sense of what losing one’s memories truly feels like. Furthermore, the editing is also worth mentioning. Yorgos Lamprinos’ editing is sublime. It lends tension and claustrophobia to the film, giving viewers the sensation that they are trapped inside the mind of an Alzheimer’s victim. Through superb production values, Zeller keeps viewers invested in the struggles of a forgetful patriarch.
Another marvelous aspect of “The Father” is the screenplay. Zeller’s greatest strength as a screenwriter is his ability to challenge viewers’ expectations by telling the story from the point-of-view of an unreliable narrator. In Hollywood, most films about degenerative diseases follow a formulaic structure and focus on the perspectives of caregivers rather than victims. This often leaves no room for emotional investment and detracts from the quality of the cinematic experience. Thankfully, though, that is definitely not the case with “The Father”. Unlike other films in the genre, the film is told from the perspective of an unreliable narrator. Like Leonard Shelby in Christopher Nolan’s “Memento”, Anthony constantly struggles to perceive differences between reality and his imagination. Through this unique narrative technique, Zeller makes viewers second-guess what’s real and simply a figment of Anthony’s imagination. Zeller crafts a compelling ill character whom viewers can easily empathize with. Unreliable narration is a tricky technique to utilize successfully in dramas. When it is used without purpose, it often comes across as a gimmick and hinders the viewer’s engagement. However, it works tremendously in this movie. Using a smart screenplay, Zeller keeps viewers engaged in a world of mental disorientation.
It is hard to not praise the phenomenal performances from the cast. Every star gets to shine, but the film is a showcase for its two leads.
Anthony Hopkins delivers a career-defining performance as Anthony. Hopkins rose to stardom for playing insane killers in crime thrillers (ex. 1991’s “The Silence of the Lambs”). With “The Father”, however, he takes on his most demanding role to date. It is not easy to get into the mindset of an elderly patriarch that is diagnosed with Alzheimer’s. It’s an emotionally draining role that demands tremendous commitment from the 83 year-old. However, Hopkins pulls it off effortlessly. With mesmerizing expressions, he conveys the bewilderment, frustrations and vulnerability of an aging patriarch that refuses to come to terms with his disease. It’s an Oscar-worthy performance from one of the greatest living veterans working in Hollywood today.
Olivia Colman is outstanding in the role of a concerned daughter that struggles to take care of her afflicted father. While Hopkins gets the showier role, Colman is also remarkable and deserving of awards recognition. As Anne, she excels at conveying emotions faced by children of Alzheimer’s parents through meaningful expressions. Whether she is arguing with her father over his resistance to carers or lamenting his memory loss, Colman effectively uses her expressions to capture the suffering experienced by caregivers of ailing parents. It’s a sensational performance from one of the most seasoned British actresses.
Despite its phenomenal performances, however, “The Father” isn’t a movie that is meant for everyone. The film offers a dark, disturbing and at times scary depiction of Dementia. Viewers that have lost their family to the condition may find it especially difficult to watch the movie. Moreover, the film’s heavy themes won’t sit well with everyone. The film delivers bold statements on aging, memory and family that may upset viewers. Due to its harrowing themes, “The Father” may not please commercial audiences.
Nevertheless, fans of dramas will definitely enjoy “The Father” and so will movie-goers seeking heartwarming entertainment. A deeply moving masterpiece, it aims to transform the public’s understanding of a disease. If Cinema is an empathetic medium, one only hopes that it will evoke empathy for seniors that battle one of the world’s most misunderstood illnesses today.