Film Review: The Father is as breathtaking as it is devastating

When an esteemed actor’s five-decade-long career includes one Academy Award from five nominations, three BAFTA Awards from eight nominations, and two Emmys from five nominations, you hardly expect to see them deliver their finest performance in the twilight of their career. But Anthony Hopkins‘ astonishing performance in The Father may just be the greatest he’s ever delivered, and that’s truly saying something. Is the race for Best Actor over before it’s even really begun?

Together with a typically magnificent turn from Olivia Colman, Hopkins delivers a career-defining performance that showcases the actor’s untapped knack for vulnerability like never before. Directed and co-written (with Christopher Hampton) by French novelist and playwright Florian Zeller, The Father is a transcendent film that presents a remarkably ingenious depiction of the crippling disorientation of dementia. The end result is as breathtaking as it is devastating.

Adapted from Zeller’s award-winning 2016 play Le Père, The Father introduces us to 80-year-old Anthony (Hopkins), who lives alone in a charming London flat, much to the chagrin of his adoring daughter, Anne (Colman). With her father in the grips of the onset of dementia, Anne is grappling with the stark reality that her father’s mind is slowly slipping away. However, Anthony dismisses her concern as quickly as he belligerently dismisses the at-home caretakers Anne continues to hire to look after her father.

When Anne visits Anthony to inform him of her plans to move to Paris with her new boyfriend and relocate her father into an aged-care facility, he launches into a blistering tirade that shatters his once-charming demeanour. Anthony accuses his daughter of “abandoning” him before dejectedly pondering, “What’s to become of me?” But then something strange happens. If you’d rather go into this film completely cold on details, skip the next paragraph.

The next time Anne appears, she’s a completely different woman (Olivia Williams), though still claiming to be his daughter, which causes Anthony to spiral into a state of panicked confusion. When Anthony enquires about his daughter’s upcoming move to Paris, she declares she’s never had any such intention to leave her father. In fact, Anthony nows lives with Anne in the flat she shares with her husband of ten years, Paul (Mark Gatiss). When the original Anne re-appears, Paul also morphs into a completely different person (Rufus Sewell), whose patience for his father-in-law’s condition is growing thin.

We’ve seen numerous films depict the devastating impact of dementia on loved ones who are forced to watch helplessly as the mind of their cherished family member evaporates before their eyes. And there’s a dash of that here through the experiences of the terrified daughter. What makes The Father so remarkably unique is Zeller’s deft choice to centre the narrative’s perspective from Anthony’s eyes, placing us squarely in the chaotic collapse of reality occurring in his dementia-riddled mind.

Zeller consistently meddles with reality by virtue of the constantly shifting nature of Anthony’s world, making for a purposely jarring experience for the viewer where we can’t help but question practically everything presented before us. It’s an ingenious technique to place us firmly in the terrifying state of mind that is dementia. Confusion and shocks consistently permeate Anthony’s life, and Zeller allows his audience to feel every agonising moment with his protagonist. Never has the anarchy of memory loss been conveyed in such a remarkable fashion, and the result is nothing short of unsettling.

It’s a brutally tough watch and you’ll likely feel like you’re losing your mind right alongside Anthony. But, that’s entirely Zeller’s intention. Anthony’s confusion, frustration, and terror are equally shared by the viewer, creating an intimately harrowing experience that’s unlike anything you’ve seen before. This is almost like being trapped within a psychological horror film you can’t escape from, which is entirely how it must feel to suffer a debilitating mental illness like dementia.

At the centre of all this turmoil is Hopkin’s mesmerising performance that will surely see him walk away with his second Academy Award for Best Actor. It’s hard to imagine anyone can best what Hopkins achieves here. To see an actor of 82 deliver such a stunning performance; one that’s essentially an endurance test of the mind is genuinely breathtaking. We know he can play cantankerous, intense characters with his hands tied behind his back, but he’s asked to offer something wildly different here, particularly in the latter stages of the narrative when the once-proud father gives way to a terrified, vulnerable shell of a man.

Anthony’s constantly shifting demeanour requires Hopkins to be incredibly warm, harshly callous, and timidly weak, and it’s no surprise Hopkins handles every fluctuating emotional state with aplomb. Hopkins’ endless charm and wit occasionally shine through, but this can shatter at any moment, particularly in a shocking moment where he turns on innocent caretaker Laura (Imogen Poots), whose rattled face perfectly encapsulates what we’ve just witnessed. Hopkins’ majestic performance has the power to charm, frustrate, and elicit empathy in one single scene, which just highlights the magic of what he’s delivered. It’s a performance for the ages and one of the finest the screen has ever seen.

The ever-reliable Colman offers a heartbreaking turn as Anthony’s forlorn daughter, who has to watch as her father sinks deeper into dementia. A sublime supporting performance that will undoubtedly see the Colman contest for her second Oscar in three years (likely against Glenn Close again, no less). Colman knows this is Hopkins’ show and is happy to allow him to take the spotlight. Yet, she steals focus with her own scenes, brimming with heartfelt, intimate tragedy that’s truly painful to watch. The organic familial chemistry between Colman and Hopkins is miraculous, feeling entirely believable right from the opening scene. For those adults who’ve been in Anne’s shoes, Colman’s performance will hit hard. For those with parents yet to reach Anthony’s age, Anne is a character we never want to be, yet must accept could be an unavoidable inevitability.

In adapting his play for the screen, Zeller can’t escape a stage-like quality to the film’s penchant for lengthy scenes of extended dialogue and occasionally claustrophobic settings. Perhaps that’s all entirely intentional, given it only adds to the state of constant dread that flows through practically every moment of this film. This is not an easy watch, but nor is it meant to be. We know there’s no happy ending coming for any of Zeller’s tragic characters, but you can’t take your eyes off this captivating introspection of the perils of age.

Zeller has crafted a wildly original and emotionally resonant portrait of a fractured mind that also serves as an acting masterclass for two of the greatest actors working today. Hopkins’ performance is the stuff of cinematic dreams, even if he’s managed to break your heart by the time the end credits roll.

The Father is a complicated maze that twists reality in a way that presents cinematic dementia like never before. It’s exceedingly painful in its staggeringly authentic portrayal of one man’s heartbreaking journey through one of the cruellest afflictions of the mind. It will haunt you for days, but therein lies its immense power.

FOUR AND A HALF STARS (OUT OF FIVE)

The Father will open in Australian cinemas on Boxing Day.

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