The Father

A heart-wrenching drama about the effects of dementia, both on an elderly man suffering from the disease and his daughter.  Anthony Hopkins and Olivia Colman give excellent performances that show the tragic effects the disease has on the afflicted, as well as their families.  Both of their performances are powerful, moving, and exceptional.  Highly recommended.

Dementia is an insidious disease.  It’s effect contrasts with most other physical diseases, like cancer, leukemia, heart disease, ALS, multiple sclerosis, where those who succumb to them typically die from them.  Those who suffer from dementia (or Alzheimer’s, it’s closest relation)  can live long after those diseases have wasted the one part of their bodies that are critical to living our lives: our minds.

The Father is the story of an elderly man, Anthony, who suffers from dementia.  The movie is an adaptation of the play Le Père by its playwright Florian Zeller.  He delivers a tour de force in his first directorial outing, a dramatic masterpiece that deserved to be included among those nominated for Best Picture in “2020”.  (I’m confident it would have been nominated in the same categories if it was nominated in 2021 instead, but that decision was not up to me.)  While having two Academy Award winning actors play the leading roles understandably helps matters,  Zeller manages to avoid the “stagey” feel of many well regarded plays when they are adapted for film.  Even though a majority of the action takes place within a single flat, the movie never feels constrained.  That Anthony’s physical existence is limited to that flat makes perfect sense, given that his condition leaves him home-bound for good reason.

In the title role, Anthony Hopkins gives one of the finest performances of his sixty-year career, which is saying something, given that he had been nominated for an Academy Award five times prior.  (His Best Supporting Actor nomination for The Two Popes was well deserved.)  The emotional range Hopkins puts on display in The Father is astounding.  He’s able to go from confused to friendly to angry to distraught in a single scene, with every mood change thoroughly convincing.

As his surviving daughter Anne, Olivia Colman makes her character’s plight compelling and tragic.  Colman’s finest work involves characters who typically don’t say what they feel, but express it through their eyes and the tone of their voices.  This ability served Colman well in her award-winning work on both the small screen (Broadchurch, Fleabag and The Crown) and large  (The Favourite).  While Hopkins’ performance is key to the success of The Father, Colman’s performance is critical to delivering its devastating emotional impact.

While watching The Father, I was reminded of A Beautiful Mind, where John Nash argues with Dr. Rosen about his schizophrenia:

Dr. Rosen : You can't reason your way out of this!
Nash : Why not? Why can't I?
Dr. Rosen : Because your mind is where the problem is in the first place!

Anthony feels fine and says so throughout the movie.  He isn’t suffering from any bodily  ailments.  He can still eat and drink and talk and listen to music without assistance.  How can he possibly be sick?  He doesn’t feel different.  Unfortunately, his mental capacity is what is deteriorating.  He doesn’t have the ability to understand what has happened to him.  His mind has become an unreliable observer and narrator of his life.

Anthony exhibits many of the symptoms I would associate with someone who suffers from dementia, including:

  • wild mood swings
  • failure to recognize family members
  • forgetfulness
  • confusing the past and the present
  • lack of a verbal filter

The artfulness behind The Father is in how it portrays these symptoms in an organic, natural way.  Anthony doesn’t experience these symptoms individually, but in combination and at varying degrees.  These symptoms are present nearly all of the time, except for those occasional moments when Anthony has a fleeting moment of lucidity.  I don’t believe I’ve ever seen a portrayal of dementia portrayed as immersive as this one before, on television or on film.

Describing the way Anthony experiences life is difficult.  He relives events from his past, as if caught within a loop inside his mind.  On the surface, Anthony’s perception resembles a Mobius strip or an Escher drawing, where what is seen loops back on itself infinitely.  Unlike those  constructs, which are constant in their own way, when Anthony re-experiences an event, the elements change in alarming ways.

The Father opens with a scene that deftly encapsulates the life of a person suffering from  dementia, as well as a family member trying to cope with a parent suffering from it.  Anthony has driven off another caregiver with his rude and antagonistic behavior.  He insists he doesn’t need anyone helping him with anything, and that the caregiver stole his watch.  Anne asks if he looked for it in the hiding place he puts his valuables.  Naturally, it is there.  Anne says that they need to talk about her leaving for Paris.  Things can’t continue as they are, since she will not be able to care for him anymore, and he can’t be by himself anymore.  Anthony doesn’t remember the conversation.  Instead, he asks about Anne’s sister, saying he hasn’t heard from her.  (He doesn’t remember that she died long ago.)  He accuses Anne of abandoning him.  She says if he refuses to have a caregiver look after him, she’ll be forced to put him into a nursing home.

The next scene shows how confusing Anthony’s perception of reality is.  The past and the present have become blurred.  He’s convinced there is a strange man in his flat.  He doesn’t recognize him, but the man says he is Paul, Anne’s husband for ten years.  He remembers that Paul and Anne separated later on, and that Anne is moving to Paris.  Paul denies being separated from Anne, and that Anne is moving to Paris.  When Anthony insists that he will not leave his flat, Paul reminds him that it’s not his flat, and that Anthony is staying with them while Anne finds another caregiver.  When Anne comes home from shopping (now portrayed by Olivia Williams), Anthony doesn’t recognize her, either.  Anthony goes along with the different woman as his daughter, clearly disoriented.  Paul takes the groceries (including a chicken for dinner) into the kitchen, and Anthony retreats to another room, trying to sort out what is happening to him.  

When Anne (still portrayed by Olivia Williams) asks her father what’s wrong, he says that he was alone until he found a strange man in his flat who insisted he was Anne’s husband.  Anne says that she hasn’t been married for five years.  When Anthony says she gave a chicken to Paul, she is dumbstruck, saying that nobody else is in the flat.  As we learn later on, Anthony’s mind is mixing the past and the present, to the point where he sees his current doctor, Paul as Anne’s former husband James, and his nurse as his daughter Anne.

Anthony’s lack of a filter is apparent from the initial scenes.  He is testy with Anne, even though she is doing everything she can to see that he’s cared for.  When Anthony speaks with Paul, the man who says he is Anne’s husband, he describes Anne as “Not very bright.  Not very intelligent.”  When he’s getting to know prospective carer Laura (Imogen Poots), he describes Anne as “sober”, and says that his other daughter Lucy was always his favorite, while Anne is in the same room pouring drinks.  Colman’s big, sorrowful eyes register the pain that each of her father’s caustic remarks inflicts on her.

Anthony’s behavior is periodically infused by wide mood swings.  He can be charming and playful one moment, loud and belligerent the next.  Anthony inexplicably tells Laura that he used to be a tap dancer, and proceeds to dance around a bit.  (I only hope I have the physical stamina of Anthony Hopkins when I’m eighty-two.)  After chastising Laura for laughing, Hopkins gives a powerful monologue, whereby he accuses Anne of conspiring against him in an effort to gain control of his flat by having him committed.  I can’t think of another actor besides Hopkins who could deliver horrible accusations with an equal measure of politeness and venom.

A person with dementia experiences the past as if it were happening now.  While those experiences may be partially faithful to what actually happened, the overall experience is unreliable.  In The Father, Anthony relives several emotionally charged events from his recent past.  The day when Anne tells him she’s moving to Paris is one.  The day when he, Anne and James have roast chicken for dinner is another.

Anthony’s mind keeps returning to that later day because of all of its emotionally charged events.  At first, James humors Anthony’s obsession with his watch.  James then starts to drink, and his resentment over his situation comes to the forefront.   He asks Anthony, “How long do you intend to hang around here, getting on everybody’s tits?”  James assaults Anthony, accusing him of ruining his daughter’s life.  Anne hears his cries from the other room and rushes over to comfort her father.  All iterations of the scene are heart-wrenching, with James taking his personal frustrations out on someone he knows to be ill.  James pleads with Anne to put her father into an institution, but Anne resists.  (Anne’s divorce probably happened shortly after this evening.)

Every time Anthony re-experiences that day, details change.  He first sees his nurse and his doctor Paul as Anne and James, then sees the real Anne and James, then sees Paul as James again, then Anne and James.  When Anne brings home the groceries, they first are in plastic bags, later in paper bags.  Anthony is dressed for dinner initially, but later is wearing his pajamas.  Anthony’s perception of the past and present have become mixed together, leading to his bewilderment, frustration and depression.

As is typical of plays, The Father contains several recurring images (or symbols) that are  threaded within the structure of the story.  One is Anthony’s obsession with his watch, symbolic of how his thoughts have become unmoored in time.  Another is how whenever Anthony becomes confused over what is happening to him, he goes to his room, throws open the curtains and stares out the window.  At this point in his life, Anthony is no longer able to go out into the world anymore; glimpses are all that he is able to enjoy now.  Finally, Anthony’s repeated reference to the painting his (deceased) daughter painted shows how terribly he misses her, even though she apparently died many years ago from an accident.

While Anthony Hopkins’ performance would be powerful and moving even if he was acting by himself, Olivia Colman’s characterization of put-upon daughter Anne is critical to the overall  impact of the story.  Anne acts as a surrogate for all children who suffer while trying their best to take care of their ill parent (or parents).  Due to his condition, Anthony is oblivious to the sacrifices Anne makes to care for him, which include her divorce from James after ten years of marriage.  Whenever Anthony remarks on his other (deceased) daughter as his favorite, Colman’s expressions show how much those remarks hurt her.  With the way that her father treats her, one can sympathize with Anne daydreaming the unthinkable, of strangling him in his sleep.

In the end, when Anthony is shown in a nursing home, the tragedy of his situation hits home.  Anne ultimately decided that she needed to live her life for herself, and relocated to Paris to be with her new boyfriend.  While Anne did not abandon her father in the literal sense, she has left his constant care to others, seeing him on weekends.  Because Anthony doesn’t fully understand where he is, he feels abandoned, something he always feared would happen.
Anthony’s situation is far worse, though, as he no longer knows who he is.  This probably is the fear that those suffering from dementia feel on a constant basis, where the recognition of who they were, as well as the recollection of their lives has left them, perhaps forever.  All Anthony can do is cry out for his mother, who I would assume passed away long ago.  Anthony’s life has basically become a horror movie that he cannot escape, his fate both sad and terrifying.  After watching The Father, all I can honestly hope for is that I do not become a burden to my family in my last years.

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