REEL Review – The Father (2020)

Director: Florian Zeller | 1h 37mins | Drama

An elderly man struggles to keep his grip on reality as his dementia gradually gets worse.

We very often shy away from topics that scare us, very rarely do people tackle a mental illness like Dementia because of what it brings out in our own lives – and as human beings we rarely want to think about these things. But The Father, directed by Florian Zeller who is adapting his own play of the same name, dives head first into it with unflinching honesty.

The film’s labyrinthian narrative feels like Kaufman’s I’m Thinking of Ending Things (2020), often leading you down a path only to open a new door of reality. This dizzying path is created because, unlike a lot of films dealing with such a disease, it shows us through the point of view of the sufferer. Anthony, while living with his daughter Ann in London, struggles to grip onto the truth around him as multiple faces and realities invade his mind as he gradually loses his thoughts.

What makes the films so fluid, and merits its cinematic adaptation, is it’s ability to portray Anthony’s reality so clearly. When we are introduced to his daughter Ann, who is his primary carer, we are led to believe it’s Olivia Coleman. But in a heart-thumping sequence we see, through Anthony’s eyes, Ann as a completely different person. The reason it’s so heart-thumping is because, in very conventional fashion, the film hops from one scene to the next without giving us a cue as to when the narrative changes. This puts you directly in the shoes of Anthony, who struggles to even comprehend who the people closest to him really are, making everything and nothing feel like reality.

That in itself is the film’s genius, finding coherence in a narrative that’s based on incoherence.

Despite a great cast always switching and changing in roles, the one constant is Anthony Hopkins. His performance is more than confusion and fear but he embodies the character wonderfully. He has the suave shell of a man who’s life of culture and independence has been stripped away and as the visions become worse his fragility, masked with frustration, is heart-wrenching to see. A great performance that’s matched only by Olivia Coleman’s understated presence and when the two perform together they create something that feels distressingly real.

We, like the main character, become dizzy with fear at how familiar faces become so unfamiliar. Imogen Poots takes the shape of Anthony’s nurse but is in fact an image of his deceased Daughter and very often we see actors like Mark Gatiss, Olivia Williams and Rufus Sewell pop up as different characters – and sometimes the same ones. That in itself is the film’s genius, finding coherence in a narrative that’s based on incoherence.

Near the end of the film, when characters find their place in reality, Anthony begins to talk about his Mother. He breaks down in child-like sniffles asking “where is my mummy”, one final plummet into devastating territory as he succumbs to the growing pain and disorientation to the point where, as an elderly man, his suffering has caused him to reach for a mothering reassurance. It is almost too much to bear, but Zeller controls the sadness with delicacy and intelligence.

Another film from 2020 that gave us a unique look at ageing illness was Relic, a symbolism-heavy Horror that blended genre and reality. But, while Relic was great at unlocking Dementia as a metaphorical beast, The Father turns into a literal one. It zips from scene to scene with unforgiving honesty, a tone that’s controlled by Zeller to flawless effect and performed with understated power.

Rating: 5 out of 5.

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