An elderly man whose memory is failing struggles to hold on to his life and his memories, while his daughter is torn over how best to help him.
In The Father you never know who’s going to walk in the door but you know they’ll probably be carrying a chicken.
The chicken is one of the few constants in the film, while nearly everything else around changes – context and chronology are mysterious and only occasional bedfellows here. Time is askew, so much so that it sometimes feels like a domestic TENET.
This is a devastating film that refuses to back down. The undignified, messy, angry and frightening nature of ageing is often glossed over; The Father lays it bare.
Anthony (Anthony Hopkins) is an elderly man living in his own mansion flat. His daughter Anne (Olivia Colman) comes in to keep an eye on him and arrange new live-in carers, after he chases the previous ones off with accusations and anger.
So far so humdrum, such a common scenario is this, as she worries about what to do with him when she moves to Paris with her new partner (another repeated motif though in this case a source of unease not solidity). But while this study of dementia does sometimes take Anne’s perspective, its focus is Anthony and his traumatic and disorientating journey.
Suddenly the apartment in the background seems to have changed. The layout is identical but the ’60s clean-lined furniture is now more modern, the kitchen upgraded. His bedroom changes from elegantly old-fashioned to a functionally stylish spare room. Then a strange man appears, claiming, surprised, that he’s Anne’s husband. But what of Paris? And the lover?
The film is based on Florian Zeller’s play Le Père, and he directs here (his first feature film, from a screenplay co-credited to Christopher Hampton). Knowing its origins, but without ever having seen the play, I wouldn’t have been surprised to find something stagey, worthy and with OSCAR written all over it; which meant that after the first, familiar few minutes I was left the very opposite of sure-footed, in a film which anyway constantly pulls the rug from under us (though it is certainly Oscar-worthy).
Memories and routines anchor the past and the present, and are often seen as the ultimate comfort for someone very elderly, until they change and the solid ground of a life lived becomes shifting sands. What is real, and what is now? And what does that even mean as bits of different memories find each other and cling like magnets end to end, creating a whole new past?
So discombobulating is it, at one point even I started to wonder if this was not a study in Alzheimer’s but in gaslighting, especially considering how much elder abuse – physical, verbal and financial – goes on in real life.
The symptoms of dementia are laid out. Anthony can be mocking and snide, and hideously rude, attacking verbally the one person who truly cares about him, Anne, and claiming angrily that he will live longest as if to taunt her: “I’m going to make a pact about it. I’m going to inherit from her!”
That said there are moments of, if not lightness, then black comedy: that chicken, and some of Anthony’s unsubtle digs which may be deliberate rather than the result of his dementia. Though really there is little let-up in this tightly played, unforgiving exploration that goes round and round, changing slightly each time.
The production design is superb. With its setting – a hallway, so many doors, the constantly referenced chicken – it often feels like grim farce, people walking in and out who Anthony isn’t expecting or doesn’t recognise.
The claustrophobia is headache-inducing despite the airy proportions of that flat; the doors hold memories behind them but he never knows what he’s going to get. Outside in the street people are walking around but Anthony is stuck inside, up high, in a horror film he can’t escape. People start talking a microsecond before the other person in their conversation has finished, which could be familiarity or a speeded-up record of memories. Everything feels inescapable.
Hopkins’s performance grows to towering proportions even as Anthony diminishes, retreating into himself as the world becomes too frightening. Sometimes he fights back, daring his daughter and son-in-law to cross him; sometimes he knows something’s up but decides to stay quiet.
Acceptance, rage and sly mockery are his reactions and sometimes his weapons, while behind his eyes he’s trying to feel his way to firmer ground which then also gives way. Maybe where he was before was actually the solid ground?
Colman is superb as Anne, sandwiched between her scared and sometimes scary father and her petulant husband Paul (Rufus Sewell). Stoicism mixes with tears as her world reduces along with Anthony’s.
Even experienced nurse Laura (Imogen Poots), newly employed for Anthony by Anne, is left all at sea. Their introductory meeting is dislocating as she tries to establish what kind of man Anthony is.
My early notes while watching it, before I figured out what I thought was going on (a luxury denied its central character), read like the Post-Its someone with memory loss might stick around their home. They help them work out where they are, yet also catalogue their decline: “kitchen units, grey”. “Ornament on top of coffee table.” “CHICKEN!” “Another Olivia!”
The ending reminded me very much of Relic, a horror film about an old woman with dementia, and how it affects her, her daughter and granddaughter. The very last scenes at least put what we have seen into a context of time but they are heartrending, and while they do bring with them a kind of peace it’s only in the form of acceptance – this is what it is.
The Father is out in the US now and is released in the UK on 12 March 2021.
Read my article about the ending here. Warning: very spoilery (and I don’t think this is a film we are really mean to unpick!)
Watch the trailer now: