Director: Florian Zeller
Writer: Florian Zeller, Christopher Hampton
Cast: Anthony Hopkins, Olivia Colman, Rufus Sewell, Mark Gatiss, Olivia Williams, Imogen Poots
The thing with translating a play (and a well-praised one at that) to the big screen is that it has the potential to lose a lot of what made it special on stage. The relationship between a live audience and the stage actors can be quite different to that of a film audience and the actors performing to pre-recorded and -edited perfection (arguably). French playwright Florian Zeller, who wrote the original 2012 play, titled in French as Le Père, first adapted his work for the big screen in 2015, titled Floride. This time around, it’s in English and stars some top-level British talent, all of whom have worked both on stage and screen, which bodes well for all involved. Sometimes directors struggle to understand how to successfully breathe life into something originally intended for the stage – yes, the script can be adapted into a workable screenplay, but it’s there in which they can often lose that which made it successful in theaters. Has Zeller managed to keep the essence of his play, or have things been lost in translation?
For full disclosure, I have not seen the stage play and so cannot make suitable comparisons. This review will revolve purely around the film.
The Father is a story about Anthony’s (Hopkins) mental decline as he suffers with dementia. His daughter, Anne (Colman), tries her best to care for him, going so far as to move him in with herself and her husband Paul (Sewell), which doesn’t go down all too well with Paul. Eventually Anne hires a caregiver, Laura (Poots), despite Anthony’s constant refusal to accept a carer and to accept that he is unwell. As Anthony becomes more and more confused with what’s happening around him, his relationship with Anne becomes more strained, and his ability to hold on to a linear reality becomes more frayed.
I think, now that more than two months after the Academy (and all other major film) Awards have passed, it’s safe to say The Father was a huge success. Winning multiple awards for Best Film, Best Adapted Screenplay, Best Actor and more across international awards along with many more nominations, it made quite the wave through the industry. And it’s very easy to see why. Zeller takes you on a distressing journey through Anthony’s eyes as his world unravels and he struggles to comprehend why. Generally speaking, a sufferer of dementia will lose track of time and begin to experience things disjointedly, eventually becoming confused about many things – something as little as misplacing a watch to as big as forgetting the identity of your own flesh and blood. Zeller uses this to frame the story, and it creates a unique picture of how a person suffering with dementia is perceiving the world. I can’t say I have personally ever known a person suffering from dementia, but Zeller gives his audience such a poignant and personal view into this heart-breaking disease that you will continue to thank your lucky stars that neither you nor someone you know suffers with it. It’s a risky way to envelop your audience in such a framework, but luckily not only does it work, it excels in assisting Zeller to get his themes and messages across.
From every word of dialogue and every actor’s expression to every shot and piece of music perfectly placed, Zeller has crafted something that is a rare gem for cinema. It truly feels like it has retained the pathos and raw emotion that must have been rife in the play. If you’re familiar with stage plays at all, you’ll likely recognise scenes that could quite easily have been lifted straight from the boards and onto a film set, and in a wonderfully seamless manner. And for those that are suffering, directly or indirectly, with dementia, one would hope they would feel some sense of relief that someone with such artistry as Zeller has managed to capture much of what it must be like to live with dementia, or care for someone who has, and bring more awareness to just how debilitating and devastating it is.
As much praise as is heaped on Zeller for his overall craftmanship on this film, there’s a reason Sir Anthony Hopkins has picked up numerous Best Actor awards for his role in The Father. I would personally put his performance up into the top ten, maybe even top five, best performances of all time. I hate to repeat myself, particularly using the same word over and over, but nothing else quite describes his performance more than the word ‘devastating’. Second to that would be the word ‘beautiful’. To give a performance that encompasses both of those words so acutely could only result in praise and accolades. Without any spoilers (not that it’s really a film that can be spoiled), the final scene encompasses that first word wholeheartedly: devastating. I personally tried very, very hard to hold back the tears that I had already spent the better part of an hour keeping at bay, but I physically could not hold back by the end. To this day, and I suspect for evermore, I cannot think of that scene and Hopkins’ performance without a lump coming into my throat and my eyes welling up, and that is no exaggeration. That scene will live with me for the rest of my life and I don’t know if I’ll ever be able to watch Hopkins in any performance in the same way again. I was personally profoundly moved and feel better equipped to understand and sympathise with people whose lives are revolving around this disease, and if that isn’t invoking the magic and one of the purposes of cinema I don’t know what is.
Of course, what would a lead actor be without a strong supporting cast. Colman is a triumph, as if we’d expect any less of her ability to make acting look as easy as taking the bins out. Her dryness opposite Sewell’s sarcasm in many scenes makes for fantastic, if awkward, viewing. Sewell’s own performance adds to another particularly devastating scene, one that’s a good example of Zeller solidly building the emotion. Poots adds another perspective, both within and without, of experiencing dementia (something that will make more sense after seeing the film). Her performance is understated but certainly a lynchpin. Gatiss and Williams are more on the peripherals but their’s are no less important performances than anyone else’s. Pull any of these performances out of the film and it would tumble like a poorly played game of Jenga. A solid film built on solid performances.
If you have a list of films to see before you die, be sure to have this one high on the list. It’s not just thoroughly excellent, it’s important and necessary. It’s artful yet realistic, pulling at every emotional thread you have but not in that overly dramatic way most films will do just to get bums on seats and those award nominations in. The Father is genuine through and through, heartfelt, heart-breaking and, yes, utterly devastating. Don’t watch if you want something light – go into this knowing that at the very least you’ll learn something, and at the very most you’ll find yourself a changed person. Cinema – no, art – at its absolute finest.