In recent months, many dementia dramas have taken place outside of the character enduring the disease. But Florian Zeller’s emotionally surreal film The Father is more daring. The film sits in the headspace of an elderly British man who's losing his memories, bound in a London flat for a perilously confusing 90 minutes.
The story’s fairly straightforward at first. Anthony Hopkins as Anthony listens to classical music before Olivia Colman, playing his daughter Anne, tells him she’s leaving and moving to Paris. But moments later, when Anthony brings this up again, Anne has no knowledge of these plans. They don’t exist. And in a face-changing twist, worthy of the surrealist filmmaker Luis Buñuel, Colman’s face changes to that of Olivia Williams. But she’s still playing Anthony’s daughter… isn’t she?
Gradually, everything unfolds in a fractured reality. The rooms in the flat change as much as the faces, the names as much as the corridors. You and he walk in fear through a maze of loose, experiential puzzle pieces, fumbling to put them together and form a cohesive whole. But as soon as there's a consistency, the logical picture falls apart again. And again. And again. You’re left in a state of constant, anxious perplexity – entering a horrifying rabbit-hole and descending through a repetitive, Kaufmanesque nightmare.
Olivia Colman and Anthony Hopkins. Photo: Lionsgate/Panther
But despite the bleak absurdism, Zeller injects a severe, heart-piercing humanity with his befuddled protagonist. Whenever Anne or her husband Paul (or is it James, played by… Mark Gatiss? Or is it Rufus Sewell?) are visibly frustrated or upset, it's painful that Anthony’s the reason why – through no fault of his own. Nobody can understand what it’s like to be him, perpetually alienated and alone. Zeller gives him an audience, at least.
Even when Anthony’s cruel to his daughter or his carer Laura (played with innocent, loving energy by Imogen Poots), you can’t help but empathise. Trapped in this elliptical apartment, which he insists is his despite being told otherwise, that claustrophobia drives him to aggressive impatience.
Considering dementia is a fate that could befall anybody, much of the fear in this terrifying drama (purportedly not a horror film) is that distinct, existential possibility. The likelihood is that we’ll be a visitor looking at a prisoner, behind those bars; or we’ll be caged ourselves, enduring that infinite hellscape of a dissolving mind (as Zeller portrays).
Many theatre-to-film adaptations don’t work, chiefly because the staginess involved in long dialogues and singular settings doesn’t translate well to camera. But Zeller (adapting his own play) and cinematographer Ben Smithard create so much intrigue in the flat. The visual scope finds an absorbing balance between realistically repressed and ambitiously unreal, the hallways looking elongated but the lighting seemingly normal. The interiors look massive at first, but they soon contract after Anthony’s tenth or twelfth circuit.
Both Hopkins and Colman, as Anthony and Anne, volley each other’s performances so beautifully. Zeller even gives Anne some scenes to herself, observing her on the cusp of losing her mind. But are these moments brief digressions into her own experience, or are they just more of Anthony's vague recollections? Hopkins is a perfect fit for Anthony’s fusty, elderly intolerance, proficiently writhing and wriggling through the contradictions in his character's perceptions.
Once the finale creaks around, you realise there’s still so much to know about this man – glimpses of a departed past undulating across his face. Emotions impossible to process. Like him, you'll leave The Father sore and broken.
The Father is expected to be released later this year
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