‘The Father’ depicts dementia in suspenseful realism

Dementia is a land where its inhabitants can never come out, and visitors can only look in from the outside. To add to the isolation, they speak a different language outsiders don’t understand.

In his role as an 80-year-old man afflicted with dementia in The Father, Anthony Hopkins has shown he’s an apt interpreter of that language. With his astute performance, the iconic British actor becomes the oldest person to win an acting Oscar this April, his second after The Silence of the Lamb in 1992.

The Father is based on the 2012 play Le Père by French playwright director Florian Zeller. It received the Molière Award for Best Play in 2014. The English version was translated by Christopher Hampton in 2016 and performed on Broadway. Hampton and Zeller co-wrote the adaptation to film. At this year’s Academy Awards, they won Best Adapted Screenplay. This is Hampton’s second Oscar win for writing; his first was for Dangerous Liaison in 1988. And for Zeller, his debut feature garnered six Oscar nominations including Best Picture.

Zeller’s intriguing way of storytelling lets viewers experience vicariously what a dementia sufferer goes through. First off, it is uncanny that Hopkins’s character is named Anthony. The film is shot from his point-of-view.

The editing by Yorgos Lamprinos strings together seamlessly the conflicting perspectives of Anthony’s: the mingling of memories, the confusion of happenings and imagination, the loss of a timeframe for past events, the distortion of present realities, and perhaps most disturbing for those close to him: unrecognizable faces. Describing how Zeller achieve these effects will be like giving out spoilers. I’ll just say this, The Father is like the Rashomon of dementia.

Zeller’s film is cinematic realism depicting the condition of dementia. The confused, bewildered look of Hopkins in close ups is accompanied by repetitive, eerie music, rendering the scenes suspenseful, not far from a Hitchcockian thriller. When one has lost the capacity of one’s brain, it is a scary experience. Anthony knows his way down the hallway to his room, but is this his flat? Where’s his watch, again? And, what happened to that painting that used to be hanging on the wall? The cast of seven brings out a powerful narrative in just 97 minutes.

Another realistic portrayal is Olivia Colman as the daughter Anne, who has to convince her father that he needs help. She struggles with the conflict between filial love and personal freedom, her husband (Rufus Sewell) does not make things easier for her either. And to complicate matter further, Anne is not her father’s favourite but her younger sister Lucy…

We’ve had a couple of excellent films on the subject of aging and dementia in the past. Away from Her (2006) directed by Sarah Polley who adapted Alice Munro’s short story is about a wife stricken by Alzheimer’s, and Michael Heneke’s Amour (2012) narrates an aging husband caring for his debilitated wife after her stroke, both received Oscar nods. Zeller has contributed to this repertoire of films with a perspective from the point-of view of the patient, adding to it a daughter’s internal conflicts.

No matter how much Anne tries to keep her father living with her, his condition needs professional care and monitoring, something she finds hard to get through to a dementia patient who is determined to be self-reliant. Colman’s performance is sensitive and moving.   

A very clever man, this father hasn’t totally lost it. The scene where he meets his new caregiver Laura (Imogen Poots) in Anne’s home shows how sharp he can still be, and not just Anthony the character, but Hopkins the actor, who is in his top form.

Original music is by Ludovico Einaudi (Nomadland, 2020) whose score reflects the mental state of Anthony’s, enhancing the cinematic effects. The opera music at the beginning of the film which Anthony is listening to, and later reprises is from Bizet’s Les pêcheurs de perles. The poignant piece is his link to the person he once was, the song entitled Je crois entendre encore: ‘I believe I still hear.’

Eventually, the inevitable question has to be asked by Anthony, an antithesis to a cathartic ending: ‘Who exactly am I?’

~ ~ ~ 1/2 Ripples

***

Related Reviews on Ripple Effects:

Away From Her

Rashomon and other Stories by Ryunosuke Akutagawa

And When Did You Last See Your Father

Published by

Arti

If she’s not birding by the Pond, Arti’s likely watching a movie, reading, or writing a review. Creator of Ripple Effects, bylines in Asian American Press, Vague Visages, Curator Magazine.

10 thoughts on “‘The Father’ depicts dementia in suspenseful realism”

  1. I would love to see this. Not just for Hopkins and Colman, who would be quite enough to make it worthwhile. But my first introduction to Florian Zeller was seeing his “The Height of the Storm” in London a couple of years ago. Jonathan Pryce and Eileen Atkins were the primary actors and one or both was on stage at all times. I think aging and its affects on the mind (along with death) must be subjects he grapples with as this one touched on that as well. It’s a play you hold onto long after the curtain is down. From what you’ve said here, I think this is the same. What a thoughtful review.

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    1. Since I can’t go to London or Broadway any time soon, I’ll keep my eyes peeled for any of FZ’s future films. I’m excited to learn that he has one in pre-production, The Son, also a play adaptation. You must see The Father when you’ve the chance, Jeanie, I know you’ll enjoy it. FZ is definitely one director to watch.

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  2. Arti,

    A brilliant review on a brilliant film. The Father was the second film I got to watch in a theater in over a year, what an experience! Anthony Hopkins was simply amazing! As I watched his character navigate his daily routine, like him, I was confused, bewildered, angry, frustrated and scared. The ending was just so heartbreaking I find myself crying with him.

    Thanks for a beautifully written review, I especially love your opening paragraph, which so eloquently and poignantly describe this horrible condition called dementia.

    BTW in case you’re wondering, the first film I got to watch at a theater in over a year is Nomadland, what a coincidence – as you pointed out these two film share the same music director, Ludovico Einaudi.

    Yinling

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    1. You know, as one who has first-hand experience in caring for a parent with dementia, I know how realistic this film is. All the mixed up perception of reality, memory loss, unrecognizable faces, and yes, that question in the last paragraph… I was actually asked that same question. It was, indeed, a poignant moment. Thanks for stopping by the Pond and throwing in your two pebbles.

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  3. Great review Arti, and I agree with Yinling about your opening paragraph.

    I spoke to a friend today whose parents both had dementia and she doesn’t want to see this film, but I see you were happy to do so. I think I’m more like you. I am interested in depictions of difficult things I’ve experienced, and often find them helpful (sometimes reassuring, sometimes affirming, sometimes informative, etc). (BTW This friend had seen the play.

    Did you see Supernova? Very different, but provocative. An Australian film, June, again, deals with vascular dementia. It has a bit of a “fairytale” element, a lighter tone, so doesn’t have the impact of The father and Supernova, but it is real about dementia, and conveys some of that confusion from the sufferer’s (is that the word to use) point of view.

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    1. My mother had dementia for a few years before she passed at 99. So, in a way, I took it as a ‘natural’ progression of old age. I wasn’t taken aback or even much saddened. Conversely, I was glad that in her state of mind, she still remembered many songs and poems which she knew from years back while she was young or even learned from school. Her long term memory was vibrant. I’d had some fond moments singing and reciting poems with her together.

      I can imagine the shock and disturbing feeling if a parent isn’t that old, like Anthony in the film, still physically able (can even tap dance), but mentally deteriorating into dementia. The decline of mental capacity, as what Hopkins has astutely performed, can be very scary for the person as well as the family observing the afflicted sinking into the abyss.

      I haven’t had the chance to watch Supernova–two of my favourite actors–have been looking forward to it but nowhere to be streamed here. Haven’t heard of June, probably won’t be available here either. Will keep an eye out for it.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. It’s “June, again” Arti! I’m not surprised you havent heard about it. It’s Australian!

        Sounds like your experience with your Mum was as positive as it can be. I agree that dementia in extreme old age isn’t as distressing as in people in their 60s to mid 80s (or, earlier).

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        1. Thanks for your correction. BTW, the title ‘June, again’ makes me think of another film ‘Still Alice’ with Julianne Moore. Now that can be very scary as her character is so young, at her prime, and intellectually engaged.

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