At first glance, The Father appears to be a standard, senior-skewing Oscar-bait drama about an aging man’s loosening grip on reality. Academy Award winner Anthony Hopkins stars as 80-year-old Anthony, with the more recently crowned Oscar favorite Olivia Colman playing his daughter Anne, a summary that makes the movie seem like it was grown in a lab to take home gold hardware and add to the actors’ already crowded mantels. The drama’s six nominations on Oscar morning — somehow simultaneously Christmas and tax day for film nerds, for all the joy and stress it evokes — seemed to confirm its status, but The Father is so much more than it appears. Of course, the performances are remarkable, but it’s the film’s script from Christopher Hampton and first-time feature director Florian Zeller that truly surprises. The Father doesn’t proceed linearly; instead, it loops and backtracks as our confusion mirrors Anthony’s mental state, a perfect use of the structural conceit that feels true to the story it’s telling.
That story centers on the relationship between Anthony and Anne as she tries to hire Laura (Imogen Poots), the latest in a string of carers to tend to her father as his mind deteriorates. When he initially meets the young woman, he appears spry and winsome. “He’s charming,” Laura says to Anne when Anthony leaves the room. “Not always,” Anne replies, and soon that side of Anthony reveals itself. It’s unclear whether this cruelty is something new or a symptom of his memory loss, but Anthony is sharp when it counts, landing blows against anyone in striking distance. The film advances toward its devastating conclusion, doubling back and repeating moments we’ve lived along with Anthony and Anne, adding layers to our understanding as Anthony struggles to retain his.
The Father should feel like something we’ve seen before, whether with Hopkins himself in 2005’s Proof, or 2006’s Away from Her, or 2001’s Iris. But Zeller, who adapted his play for the screen, somehow does something new here, while never making the film’s construction feel like a gimmick. His structure is smart, but empathetic, discombobulating the audience alongside Hopkins’ character. If anyone hasn’t experienced a loved one’s mental decline, they’ll get an authentic look at the experience; meanwhile, the interactions between Anthony and Anne will ring true to anyone with a relative who suffers from dementia, with their repetition and wildly swinging changes in tone and demeanor.
Though Zeller translated his play into the film, The Father avoids the tells that often mark stage-to-screen adaptions. It is largely bound to the home where Anthony and Anne live, but you wouldn’t know of its origins if you missed Zeller’s on-screen credit for the work. It feels like a wholly original work written expressly for the medium, and Zeller doesn’t seem like a first-time director. His visuals work well on screen, with cinematography from Ben Smithard capturing the well-composed blues on blues of the costumes and the sets.
Mark Gatiss, Olivia Williams, and Rufus Sewell are strong in supporting roles, as is Poots, but the performances most deserving of praise are the two you’d expect. Colman keeps shattering before our eyes with each new sorrow, then trying to pull herself back together; it’s at once awful and wonderful to watch. However, it’s Hopkins that somehow still manages to astonish, after more than 100 roles in film and television. He’s alternately charismatic and vicious, brittle and vivacious, sometimes within the same scene. If you haven’t seen The Father, you’d see his name on the Oscar nominations this year without much surprise, but he deserves all the accolades here.
The Father is a stunning reminder of the power of the medium and how it — and even cinema’s most familiar faces — can still surprise. This is a film that leaves you in awe of both its structural and performance feats, as well as impressed by its power to move you.
“The Father” is currently in theaters and is available on Premium Video on Demand Friday.