Anthony (Anthony Hopkins), a privileged London retiree, is in his eighties and, despite being physically alert, he is helpless against dementia. After another nurse abandons him, his daughter Anna (Olivia Colman), the only remaining seemingly close person in his life, informs him that she has fallen in love and is going for Paris, implying that, perhaps, he will have to enter a nursing facility. Already in the next scene, Anthony discovers a stranger (Mark Gatiss) in his flat, claiming to be his son-in-law and that his place belongs to him and Anna, and Anthony is their unwelcome guest, and Anna is evidently not going to Paris. Then she emerges and reveals herself to be an altogether different lady (Olivia Williams) – in other words, we see the world through Anthony’s eyes, and nothing he says should be taken seriously.
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Florian Zeller, a French writer and playwright who has been feted in theatrical circles, makes his directorial debut with this film. Critically acclaimed genius, and the creator of several of France’s most popular modern plays. Now, voices from the film business have joined the chorus: the film has received mostly positive press, has received six Oscar nominations, including the main one, has received two BAFTA awards, and a slew of other honors.
Zeller’s own play, “The Father,” was written in 2012 and translated into English by Christopher Hampton, a leading expert in the field also listed as a co-writer. This is the first installment of a trilogy; the sequels “The Mother” and “The Son” were similarly well-received. Six years ago, in France, a free adaptation of “The Father” called “Floride” was released, in which Jean Rochefort played his final role. Anthony Hopkins’ work is undeniably remarkable. From here, proof of colossal acting talent will remain – more than worth, even nothing to speak about, your hour and a half, but scarcely changing humanity’s perceptions of Anthony Hopkins.
“Father” is more of a conundrum than a melodrama, as the summary suggests: Zeller employs the optics of an unreliable storyteller so frequently that it ceases to be a method and becomes the story’s true content. We are trying to decipher the puzzles that plague the protagonist while inside his hazy consciousness. In which flat did he awake this morning? What does he see when he looks out the window? What are these women’s names? Imogen Poots, in addition to the two Olivias, shows up on the porch. What is the name of this man? Rufus Sewell is occasionally replaced by Gatiss. What happened to his beloved watch? What time is it, exactly?!
Everything is brilliantly crafted – personalities proliferate, reproductions echo, and mise-en-scenes collide. But at some point, it loses all meaning, except for the technical one: a new turn of the screw, a new reaction of Hopkins. His hero is repulsive and less often charming, scary and pathetic, sarcastic and vulnerable – such a role is another brilliant addition to his magnificent career. Zeller’s agility can be mistaken for depth, which is understandable given the gravity of the situation. But is there actual depth, or is it emotional manipulation?
The light falls beautifully, the opera arias sound majestical, space is carefully designed around an increasingly menacing hallway, and Zeller demonstrates himself to be a confident, competent director in general. Despite this, it has a very theatrical tone to it – in terms of mood, speech structure, and the very nature of the film’s effects. Not that this is a terrible sign, but the ability to blur the lines between mediums is what sets film adaptations of plays by great directors like Mike Nichols and Roman Polanski apart from the norm. Overall, despite the concerns mentioned above, “The Father” is unquestionably one of the best films of 2020, with a plethora of positive aspects and worth seeing.