Anthony (Anthony Hopkins), a retired engineer in his early 80s, lives in a spacious and elegant London apartment—alone, which, as his daughter Anne (the ever-transfixing-to-watch Olivia Colman) tries gently to tell him on one of her daily visits, is starting to be a problem. Anthony is still energetic and physically healthy, but his memory is beginning to fail, and he has fired his last few caregivers over perceived infractions that are probably just figments of his imagination. “I don’t need anyone,” he snaps at Anne, in the stiff-upper-lip denial of interdependence that will become one of his last remaining character traits as he slips into dementia.
The Father is the directorial debut of the French playwright Florian Zeller, adapted from his own smash-hit play, which first played in Paris in 2012 and has since been translated and performed in 45 countries. The Broadway version, translated from the French by Christopher Hampton (who also collaborated on the screenplay), won Frank Langella a Tony in the title role in 2016. All these theatrical bona fides would seem to suggest that any attempt to film The Father—a story that takes place almost entirely in one location with no more than a handful of characters—would be bound to feel claustrophobic and “stagey” (though I count myself in the school of critics that considers that to not always be a bad movie adjective). But in a remarkable feat of directorial sleight of hand, Zeller uses the medium of film to tell Anthony’s story in a way only film can—by evoking through a mix of editing, camera placement, and production and sound design the temporally and spatially collapsed world its protagonist is experiencing.
There have been many powerful, even brilliant movies about losing a loved one to age-related dementia: Sarah Polley’s Away From Her, Michael Haneke’s Amour, Richard Glatzer and Wash Westmoreland’s Still Alice, and just last year, Kirsten Johnson’s semi-documentary Dick Johnson Is Dead. But all of these very different treatments of the subject have in common that they adopt, for the most part, the point of view of someone helplessly looking on as their spouse or parent becomes unreachably distant. While The Father effectively communicates the deep grief of Colman’s character, the only real perspective it allows us on the world is Anthony’s—and a very unreliable and unsettling perspective it is.
The first major sign that things are about to go perceptually awry for protagonist and audience alike comes nearly 20 minutes in: Anthony, cheerfully if distractedly making a cup of tea in the kitchen, finds a strange man (Mark Gatiss) calmly reading the paper in his apartment. Indignantly confronting the stranger, he’s gently informed that this is Paul, Anne’s husband, and that the flat he is living in belongs not to him but to them. Apparently since the last cut, time has passed and the couple has brought him into their place without him or us remembering the transition—but wait. Why does a previously unseen woman (Olivia Williams) show up at the door one night claiming to be Anne and laughing off his perfectly understandable confusion? Why, a little later on, does a different man (Rufus Sewell) appear as Anne’s husband, now showing more contempt and cruelty toward Anthony than his passive-aggressive predecessor?
On paper, this trick might sound obvious: Casting multiple performers in the same or similar roles naturally puts the audience on our guard as to which version of the character to trust, and to what extent we can even trust our own eyes and ears. Luis Buñuel famously employed a version of this technique in his 1977 black comedy That Obscure Object of Desire, casting two very different women—the coolly remote Carole Bouquet and the earthier, more sexually dominating Ángela Molina—as the protagonist’s maddeningly elusive love interest. The multiple-actor technique in The Father goes even further. When Zeller switches in one performer for another, it’s not just to dramatize the way we all project our own imaginary characters onto the blank canvases of the people we love. It’s to show how, for a person in cognitive decline, reality itself becomes a blank canvas, painted every day with a fresh picture that’s then erased.
The actor-swap trick is far from the only way Zeller establishes Anthony’s intensifying disorientation. The layout and décor of the apartment he lives in also keeps changing around him, in small ways that, once you start to notice them, show how he must be confusing the space around him with places he’s visited or lived before. A painting he claims was always hanging over the mantel—painted by his younger, absent daughter, the one who, he tactlessly points out in front of Anne, was always his favorite—is suddenly missing, and he’s told it was never hanging there at all. Later some furniture that appeared in one of the rare scenes outside this ever-shifting apartment shows up inside it, to his confusion. Conversations also loop around, appearing to repeat themselves in the mouths of different characters, or simply to happen twice in a row in the same scene. This subtle but continuous process of dislocation is communicated simply and soberly, without fancy camerawork, trippy montages, or heart-rending close-ups. But the effect is to make us identify with Anthony’s wariness as he opens his bedroom door each morning, never sure whom or what he might find outside.
I wouldn’t go as far as to say that The Father is chilly in tone: This portrait of a fractured family struggling to do right by its eldest member is never less than compassionate, and its closing scenes in particular are deeply moving. But there’s nothing conventionally heartwarming about The Father, or about Hopkins’ often difficult-to-love character. In one early scene, Anthony takes a nasty delight in revealing his daughter’s (apparent) infidelity to her (apparent) husband. Later he turns on the charm for a visiting home health aide (Imogen Poots), pouring her a whiskey and busting out an impromptu tap dance, only to turn on her and insult her viciously as soon as she begins to warm to him. Anthony’s King Lear–like distrust of his devoted daughter, a Cordelia if ever there was one, has him occasionally accusing her of nefarious plots against him. When at one moment he has the mental clarity, after a small task Anne performs for him, to sincerely thank her for all she has done, it isn’t a sign that Anthony’s suffering has put him on the road to spiritual betterment; in the next scene, he will be right back to picking petty fights and undermining her attempts to help him.
In its final moments, The Father’s pace slows down—not that it ever moved that fast, but those slippery temporal transitions make the 97-minute runtime seem to slide by. In a pair of late scenes with Colman and Williams as two different manifestations of the increasingly unidentifiable mother/daughter/nurse figure he turns to for care and support, Sir Anthony—playing a character deliberately written to share his own name and birthdate—goes deeper into a role than I believe we’ve ever seen him go. Though he’s been an acting legend for generations, Hopkins is best remembered for playing smart and urbane characters with a near-diabolical level of self-control: Silence of the Lambs’ Hannibal Lecter, of course, but also the repressed butler of The Remains of the Day or Picasso in Surviving Picasso or even the vaguely Shakespearean Norse deity he briefly descended to play in Thor. His Anthony in The Father starts out as such a figure, listening to classical music as he reads a thick tome, cultured and complacent in his bourgeois way of life, and then quickly—or is it slowly?—he begins to find himself losing every trait but his most basic humanity: As time goes on, all he seeks to understand is where he is, who is with him, and what is about to happen next. The chance to see the 83-year-old Hopkins in a role that forces him to confront the tragic fact of human mortality, and his own eventual demise, with such rigor, curiosity, and vulnerability would have been reason enough to send audiences to see The Father, even if we weren’t also witnessing the birth of a major film director in Florian Zeller.