The Father (PG13)
Starring Anthony Hopkins, Olivia Colman, Mark Gatiss
Directed by Florian Zeller
The mind is a tempestuous place.
And when that mind belongs to Anthony Hopkins playing a befuddled old lion in dementia winter named simply as Anthony here, it’s a tempest that is bewildering yet sympathetic, and heartbreaking yet frightening.
As the central character floundering in a swirling sea of memory breakdown without a discernible anchor to hold him down, he is simply captivating. Because we stay transfixed as we fear and worry for him as we witness his irreversible decline.
There is no life jacket here. Only, as the dreaded disease reveals itself after what seems like absolute normalcy at first, an inevitable straight jacket that’s coming to tie his brain up into knots.
Initially, everything seems ordinary. An elderly man is cranky and bull-headed. He doesn’t get on with his carer whom he believes has stolen his watch. His devoted but exhausted grown-up daughter thinks he’s simply forgotten that he had hid it and engages a new helper for him. “I have a memory like an elephant. You know that animal?” quips Anthony in cheeky bravado, unaware he’s sinking in a freefall.
Without a doubt then, you must know Sir Anthony — Oscar winner, living legend and overall superb actor.
As Hannibal Lecter, the ultimate serial killer in 1991’s The Silence of the Lambs, he was laser-focused and searing with his sinister stare.
Now, as Anthony, the greatly defanged but stubborn man who insists that he can take care of himself and everybody can, well, just “f*** off”, he’s confused and trying to make sense of his situation in his cloistered despair. We’re talking about despair so great that both he and, by extension, we, do not know who’s who here, what’s what or where’s where.
I don’t wanna give too much of the story away, but it’s impossible to carry on without letting on that there’s an element of alternate reality. A big one.
Not the sort of comic-book alternate reality in the Avengers or even Donald Trump’s nonsensical delusional reality.
No, this is far more scary for it’s an alt reality coming totally from Anthony’s point of view without him knowing that his mind has changed. Which means that we see what he sees, we feel what he feels, we don’t understand what he doesn’t understand and we’re unable to escape for he, too, is unable to flee.
By the way, for dementia horror done the natural, humanising way, it’s this The Father. If you want the supernatural, inhuman version, see the Aussie chiller, Relic.
Utter puzzlement abounds here. Why does his overburdened daughter, Anne (Olivia Colman), look so different as though she’s actually another woman (Olivia Williams)?
Who are the strange men named Paul (Rufus Sewell and Mark Gatiss) waltzing freely in and out of his safe, familiar flat professing to be the son-in-law he has never met? “This is my flat, isn’t it?” Anthony asks in helpless bafflement as we foresee something more ominous. There’s a scene involving the diminished Hopkins and the terrifically unpitying Sewell in physical conflict that will break your heart.
How dare Anne plot insidiously to send him away to a nursing home in preparation for her move to Paris? “Let me make it absolutely clear; I’m not leaving my flat,” Anthony declares in defiant rage.
How come the sprightly new carer, Laura (Imogen Poots), whom he has taken a strange liking to, reminds him so much of his missing younger daughter, Lucy, who never comes to visit him? “I don't understand why she never gets in touch, never,” he keeps asking futilely and poignantly because Anne secretly winces in dread when the name is mentioned.
Now, to make this stance convincing and to not turn it into a melo, over or under-drama, this is where impressive thespian talent surrounded by more impressive thespian talent comes in.
Hopkins and Colman are both vying for this year’s Best Actor and Best Supporting Actress Oscars, respectively, and both have already won big previously. Thus making this show a rare one for the trophy cabinet in which an actual Best Actress winner (Colman for The Favourite) is looking after an already Best Actor (Hopkins as Hannibal Lecter, of course).
Both are so believable as the main sufferer and his long-suffering caregiver that real people going through the same affliction must surely see themselves in them.
Although I should add quite vividly that there’s a certain British get-on-with-it doggedness here which a similarly affected Asian or even an American family may not be likely to emulate. For one thing, I don’t think they would banter so much with such poetic, picturesque articulation.
“I feel as if I'm losing all my leaves, the branches and the wind and the rain, I don’t know what’s happening anymore,” Anthony cries in impotent dotage. I tell you, when he, the elderly father, cries for his mommy eventually, I challenge you not to shed a tear yourself.
For Anthony’s Anthony is a very normal deteriorating man we all root for as we recognise this empathetic person in some form or other on a stage that has passed him by.
And it really is a stage in this film, directed by French first-timer, Florian Zeller, based on his own 2012 play, Le Père. You can tell because the whole limited structure inside Anthony’s rather large flat is set up like a stage play but with close-ups of the Brit acting royalty on full powerful display here.
The two Olivias are perfect benevolent angels of mercy bearing the brunt of this most trying man in their midst. Colman is spot-on relatable as the thankless, yet loving daughter at wit's end who can’t go even to a nearby supermarket without getting an emergency call. On her face, stress is a veritable emotion to battle as a duty to her father’s land.
On Hopkins’ face, meanwhile, is an expertly visceral reaction to a Groundhog Day of sorts where the same routine — a missing watch, a bright breakfast, a chicken dinner, a drawing of the curtains, the abject fear of losing both his flat and his mind — is played out with different people with tentative faces.
The man is so good that while we’re two steps ahead of him in the proceedings, he is five ahead of us in mesmerising us in a simple and understandable manner, the turbulence plaguing his head and the anxiety penetrating his heart.
“Everything is fine, Anne; the world is turning,” Anthony assures his daughter, with no clear certainty, that he has everything under control.
It isn’t pretty. But as Sir Anthony puts in a masterful turn here, he makes the world – meaning, this world of great cinema — indeed extremely fine. (4/5 stars)
Photo: Shaw Organisation