Florian Zeller’s masterful drama shows what it’s like to live with someone who has dementia — and live with it

By: Steve Pulaski

I nearly made it through The Father — a new film about a man battling dementia, recently nominated for a half-dozen Oscars — without shedding a tear. Then came the climax. The inevitable doesn’t necessarily happen, but it wasn’t even that aspect that made me cry. It was one of many powerful moments from Anthony Hopkins, whose character finally realizes he’s lost touch with reality around him. He begins to weep, crying out for his mommy in front of his nurse. I bawled. Truth be told, I’ll probably go out in similar fashion. Funny how even the toughest little boys and brawniest grown men always want their mothers when they’re scared or hurt.

Adapted from his play Le Père, playwright-turned-film-director Florian Zeller tows a difficult line with this story. Zeller expertly handles the dualism of making this film both about caring for someone with dementia and living with it. We’re brought into the mind of Hopkins’ Anthony, which initially doesn’t seem like it’s failing one bit. We observe him listening to opera with his headphones in a tastefully decorated London flat. Then his daughter Anne (Olivia Colman, The Favourite) stops by to inform him she’s met someone and is moving to Paris. We see his demeanor become hostile, “You’re leaving me, is that it? You’re abandoning me?” Anne’s face says it all. It’s as if this shouldn’t be news to her father, but once again it is.

We’re also granted Anne’s perspective along with the caretakers who try to organize his fractured sense of time and place. Often, however, we resort back to Anthony’s state, never sure what is true, or who exactly is on-screen. Characters come and go, sometimes exiting rooms and remerging as different people, taking on various names and identities. At first, it appears to be morning. A couple beats later, it’s evening and things are winding down. Zeller tangles us in a web, and the lack of concretion makes us feel like the character progressively losing sanity in a horror movie.

The bulk of the film takes place in one of two lush flats. Which one we can never be so certain. It could be Anthony’s flat, or Anne’s after she’s taken him to stay with her. She might have a husband named Paul (Rufus Sewell), and he might not be very receptive to the idea of Anthony living with them. Then enters Laura (Imogen Poots), a young assistant hoping to provide Anthony some comfort and clarity. Their initial meeting goes well. But Laura also reminds Anthony of his other daughter, who was an artist but…she died in an accident? Where’s her painting that’s supposed to be on the wall? Another assistant (Olivia Williams) enters the picture too, the timeline of when uncertain. Her resemblance to Anne (Williams is perfectly cast as a near-doppelganger of Colman) causes Anthony, and the viewer, more confusion.

This confusion extends artfully to the production of The Father. It can be as noticeable as different tiles on the floor, or as subtle as a white bag carrying a raw chicken reappearing as a blue one. Production designer Peter Francis vividly remakes the details of two strikingly similar interiors. I’m sure a rewatch will bring more changes to the surface. Not enough praise will be heaped on editor Yorgos Lamprinos either. Lamprinos had the gargantuan challenge of creating a story both confusing yet accessible, and his slickness is seen in how we can exit one room and enter an entirely different setting with reality-bending conviction. All of this is so nuanced you’re liable to miss it trying to piece the story together.

The more I describe The Father, the more I feel as if I’m analyzing a Christopher Nolan picture. I can’t quite recall the last time abrupt setting changes and editing tricks played such a strong role in a drama. But The Father isn’t like most genres. It’s a cut above even great films about dementia, such as Still Alice, because not only are you witnessing the hell the disease takes on family members, you begin to feel as if you’re losing grasp on what everyone around you sees clear as day.

Anthony Hopkins feels like he’s had eight or nine tour-de-force performances over his storied career, but The Father comes across as a challenge even for someone as stellar as himself. The 83-year-old is tasked with flipping emotional switches constantly, often within the same beat — a tall order even for someone of his experience. Olivia Colman is no novice either, and she manages to outdo herself here. Her wearied face, her smile accompanied by welling eyes, and her reticence that persists despite her boiling rage towards her husband are conveyed with great precision. Bless these stalwart veterans of their craft.

I’m far too young to be thinking about such a debilitating disease, but I’ve reiterated this to friends and family several times. Give me cancer over dementia eight days a week. Take my physical health. Give me some kind of medication or therapy. Don’t take my mind nor memories. The absolute last thing I want is to be completely unaware of my final days on this Earth. After watching The Father, I’d pound the table insistently as if it meant I had a damn choice.

NOTE: The Father is now in theaters and available to rent on Amazon Prime Video, Google Play, and various other platforms for $19.99.

Grade: A+

[embedyt] https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=4TZb7YfK-JI [/embedyt]