Wracked by confusion, despair, and distrust, family patriarch Anthony (Anthony Hopkins) is a man untethered to time. An elderly gentleman who lives with his daughter, Anne (Olivia Colman), Anthony suffers from dementia. And the audience is given an up-close account of what that devastating condition can do to one’s familial relationships and one’s sense of self.
The Father is a powerful, emotionally gripping piece of cinema. It’s bewildering and confounding and offers no easy resolutions to its protagonist’s dilemma. There are none — only a worsening state as his memories vanish from one moment to the next.
Anthony welcomes Anne back home at one point, delighted to see her. Suddenly, the woman before him is no longer his daughter. Like Anthony, the audience is flummoxed. Is this woman, now played by another actress (Olivia Williams, who looks like she could be Colman’s sister) really his daughter? “Where’s Anne?” he shouts, deftly switching from cheerful good spirits to vexed indignation in the blink of an eye. “I’m here,” says the stranger. In a similar manner, characters we recognize, and some we’ve never seen before, come and go. Anthony has seen them before. He just doesn’t remember.
Anne is trapped in a perpetual state of despair. Anthony at least experiences bouts of elation, or even normalcy, however fleeting such moments prove to be. But her pain is a near-constant refrain. Colman is outstanding as a woman coping as best she can with a parental figure who’s sometimes her loving and compassionate dear old dad but who can turn on a dime, making her the target of his invective. This is really the story of two people, and they no longer recognize each other.
Hopkins plays Anthony as an extension of himself, sometimes in quite literal ways. When he provides his birthday to a health aid, for instance, he gives Hopkins’ real date of birth (just check out his bio on Internet Movie Database). Such meta interstices add to the sense of overlapping realities. The environment created onscreen is a nebulous one where time and truth lose all meaning.
Anthony goes from tender and sympathetic to irate and back again without missing a beat. His character’s fragile emotional core is as tenuous as his memories, which must be the case for those suffering from Alzheimer’s and its accompanying dementia. Hopkins is given a range of emotions that tests his mastery of the craft, and he proves here why he’s remained a cinematic tour de force. His performance is riveting, and no doubt Hopkins will make the shortlist for Best Actor come Oscar time, as will Colman for Best Actress. She plays Anne as a woman whose emotions are kept in check but always appear to be bubbling just below the surface, ready at any moment to boil over. It’s a nuanced and sensitive performance.
Director Florian Zeller must have done formidable research in order to present Anthony’s condition with such fidelity. His slipping grasp extends to domestic objects, not just people, and they take on a heightened sense of meaning, like objects in a dream. Familiar artifacts — his watch, the artworks in his apartment — are like lifelines that provide him with grounding at times, but they’re always on the brink of being untethered from their moors: lost, misplaced, or unfamiliar. Anthony turns around and the furniture is no longer where it was just seconds before. He navigates his way through a perpetual liminal state as best he can, but his addled condition only worsens, and he descends into paranoia, doubt, and fear.
The mercurial realities presented in The Father recall those of Ron Howard’s biopic on mathematician John Nash, A Beautiful Mind (2001), but its twists never settle into a place of understanding. There are no aha moments, as with Howard’s film, where fiction gives way to reality. Here, it’s all reality, but it exists in the form of a Gordian Knot. Drama, rated PG-13, 97 minutes, Amazon Prime, Vudu, and Google Play, 4 chiles. — Michael Abatemarco