Things fall apart: The Father (2020)

I’ll get it out of the way: I’m not actually that much of an Anthony Hopkins fan. He’s certainly great in many of his appearances, and he’s never not watchable, but I often feel that I’m watching a trademarked Anthony Hopkins performance, something that has the purpose of making the material he appears in look better than it really is. There’s no one like Hopkins to make mediocre scripts and outright schlock seem more classy, at least at a first glance, than what they really are – but a bit like that other saint of modern cinema, Meryl Streep, it’s rare that I watch a performance by Anthony Hopkins without being entirely aware that that is what I’m watching.

While I can’t say that Anthony Hopkins is unrecognisable in The Father, I will say that Hopkins the celebrity vanishes into Anthony the character almost entirely. And it is bitterly ironic that the character I’m watching is on the verge of vanishing himself.

In Florian Zeller’s The Father (based on his play of the same title), Hopkins plays a character called Anthony who is suffering from dementia, and while the film isn’t 100% consistent in this, it predominantly depicts the character’s plight from his own increasingly compromised perspective. This gives it a distinctly different feel from other films telling similar stories, such as Still Alice (2014), starring Julianne Moore. In The Father, reality shifts and past and present melt into each other, and to Anthony this plays out like a blend between a psyche-bending Charlie Kaufman film (think of I’m Thinking of Ending Things, perhaps) and a horror movie: whenever someone leaves his sight, they may return looking entirely different – or they may look the same but be someone other than he thought they were. The flat where Anthony lives – his own flat, he thinks – changes in imperceptible ways. Things he considered to be facts turn out to be memories, sometimes false or at least distorted ones, as everything the man is made up of, all the memories he has of his life, is in the process of dissolving.

The Father is exceedingly effective at putting us in the mindset of a man trying in vain to hold on to some sense of reality and of self. It is unsettling, both in obvious ways – as when Anthony’s daughter Anna, played by Olivia Colman, suddenly looks entirely different and is played by Olivia Williams – and in other, more subliminal ones, such as the flat never quite being the way we remember it: the colour of the paint changes subtly, sometimes there’s a table here, sometimes there are chairs there, and paintings seem to appear and vanish. (In Zeller’s stage play that his film is based on, the various pieces of furniture making up the flat disappear step by step, leaving the character on an empty stage.) My wife put it quite fittingly as we walked home from the cinema: Anthony’s reality seems to be gaslighting him. Sometimes Anthony rails against the way reality seems to be playing tricks against him, sometimes you can sense him growing despondent as he feels that no one believes him or is even on his side, which adds to his growing paranoia. The person who has just entered the flat may claim to be his daughter, or his son-in-law, but their faces aren’t right, their stories don’t match up with what they said just a few moments ago.

This is where Zeller’s chosen perspective pays off: we don’t know which Anna is the real one, or if indeed there is a real one. We don’t know whether Anthony is at his own flat or at his daughter’s. Like him, we have to take everything at face value, but at the same time we can’t, because we’re just as unmoored as Anthony is. As we watch the film, our minds are trying to figure out what is real and in what sense, and by the end of The Father we will probably have a fairly good idea of Anthony’s reality, but the film is not a puzzle to be resolved. There are at least two instances where the end of a scene loops back to its beginning, where characters start to repeat verbatim what other characters, or other versions of the same character, already said five minutes ago. The more Anthony tries to understand his predicament, the more it becomes obvious that no such understanding is forthcoming.

While the staging of The Father is fantastic at creating Anthony’s unstable, unsettling reality, it is the acting by the entire cast – the aforementioned actors are joined by Rufus Sewell, Mark Gatiss and Imogen Poots – that grounds all of this in an emotional reality. There are moments especially in Hopkins’ performance that recall earlier roles of his, where the character’s former charms reemerge, but Anthony’s fragility in the face of dissolution, his mind still being strong enough enough for him to understand that he is losing himself but not to understand why this is happening, is entirely unlike the roles that make up most of Hopkins’ filmography. (In hindsight, I would be interested in rewatching the 2018 TV version of King Lear again, which featured the actor as another father in mental and physical decline. I remember his performance being good, but it didn’t feel nearly as devastating as this one.) Colman’s role is smaller, but she is brilliant as always, and the supporting turns by the rest of the cast are equally effective.

Watching The Father is not a pleasant experience. It is unsettling and saddening. But there is a joy in watching an actor like Anthony Hopkins at this stage of his career play a part that requires this kind of vulnerability, and there is also a joy in watching Zeller’s confident first turn at directing for the screen. Considering that Hopkins is in his mid-80s, we cannot know how many such roles there are in his future. As much as it sounds like a tasteless joke, considering what the film is about, I hope that in addition to his performances in films such as Silence of the Lambs and The Remains of the Day, Anthony Hopkins will long be remembered for the character he has brought to life in The Father.

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