The topic of dementia was once taboo for cinema, with the often-slow decline of the illness difficult to encapsulate, and perhaps too distressing to explore. However, many independent films of the last few years have broached the subject – Michael Haneke’s wonderful Amour, Oscar winner Still Alice, and the forthcoming Supernova to name a few. The Father, the directorial debut of playwright Florian Zeller, takes on the subject more boldly than ever before.
Anthony Hopkins stars as Anthony, a retired man whose advancing years have led his daughter (Olivia Colman) to hire a live-in carer. His protests against the move are ignored. However, when familiar faces begin to shift and look like strangers, Anthony begins to feel very insecure in his own home.
The film is, in essence, a visual representation of dementia. Characters are played by different actors, the timeline shifts and distorts. This method creates a sense of unease in the viewer, seeing the world from Anthony’s position. It’s a horror film, not because it is trying to scare you, but that the subject is horrific. We’re witnessing a man’s mind betray him, and the effect is powerful.
Key to this is Hopkins’ performance, which feels like a building slowly falling apart. The Oscar winner captures the bravado and fear around those suffering from the illness, determined to keep their independence while frightened of what’s happening to them. Having spent much of the last decade in commercial cinema, it’s a reminder of why the late Sir Richard Attenborough described Hopkins as the best actor of his generation.
We see both his perspective, and the frustrated view of Colman’s character, Anne, who tries to care for him in the shadow of deep resentment over a past loss. It’s a symphony of barely restrained emotion from The Crown star. Impressive character actors like Rufus Sewell, Mark Gatiss and Olivia Williams turns up sporadically in different parts and all make an impact. However, it’s Hopkins who drives at the heart of this primal fear – the loss of control.
Wonderful and terrifying, The Father will strike a chord with anyone who has gone through the experiences explored in the story. Many films have represented dementia in a loose and palatable way, but Zeller throws out the pleasantries and makes things uncomfortably real. A work of cinema that will stay with you for a long time.
Written by James Luxford