The Father (2020)

Dir. Florian Zeller. Starring Anthony Hopkins, Olivia Colman, Olivia Williams

A recent release which I think relies a little bit too much on surprise reveals for effect, as you’ll see when you read this, but if you’re looking to see this and you want to avoid spoilers, come back to this post later on. 

There’s an impossible task being undertaken in The Father, and it’s not a task that any of its characters are trying to manage. There are solutions, however unpleasant, for Anne (Colman), who is forced to make a choice between her father and her own life. And it’s not a task if you never pick it up, which describes how helpless Anthony (Hopkins) is in trying to make sense of the world around him when it seems to make less sense every time out. Time and space are immaterial. What seems like the present is in fact memory, and what feels like a memory is replaced with another memory or another experience almost immediately. Nothing is quite where he thinks it should be. He’s constantly on the lookout for a wristwatch which he keeps losing, although I think they probably have more at the Symbolism Shop down the road. The impossible task is being taken on by Zeller (a newbie to film, though this movie based on his play is almost ten years old) and his writing partner, the veteran Christopher Hampton. When the film is successful, it is extremely difficult to have our bearings. When the film is unsuccessful, we understand a great deal about what’s happening to Anthony, where Anne is, the story of Anthony’s daughter Laura, the identities of the men. Seeing Anne without Anthony is a mistake because it damages the intensity of our understanding only through Anthony’s baffled subjectivity, but it happens more and more throughout the film. In other words, the narrative is the impossible task, because a narrative not only dilutes the power of Anthony’s confusion by giving us something to hang onto, but it cheapen the story itself..

A film (or a play, like the one by Zeller this is based on) with this intended audience must have a narrative, and the kind of narrative that Zeller has opted for is a mystery. On one hand, a man in search of a narrative for this kind of story can only reach for so many options. The film is about Anthony, a person who is fundamentally unchanging because his mind is too damaged to allow him to change in any direction other than “worse.” Given that so much of what we see of Anne is about Anthony’s confusion and not about her guilt or responsibility or torment or whatever, it’s not as if we can really trace her development as a person either. So if it’s not about people, it must be about things, and if it’s about things then the mystery is on the table. It should not be surprising that “mystery” is sort of an empty choice for this kind of story. If we read this as “the mystery of how far gone Anthony is,” then all we need is about twenty minutes of film to have a pretty good sense of what Anthony no longer understands, of how bad things have gotten. All it takes is a single change in production design, a couple people showing up he doesn’t recognize (and who we don’t recognize either), one look at Anne’s face to see how sad it is that Lucy’s dead and how sad that her father cannot remember it either. If we read this as something like, “the mystery of what happened to Lucy,” then the entire movie is sort of cheap and underdressed. I don’t think I’d go quite that far—remembering that he’s seen Lucy in the hospital bed before doesn’t trigger some kind of Shutter Island tell-all sequence, much to this movie’s credit—but I do think the movie treats that information as a way for Anthony to knock on the door, if not a key to let himself all the way in. There are all these mentions of it, all these sad looks, all these moments where someone will back away from the topic when Anthony does not have any knowledge of it. And then, not long after he remembers seeing what must have been some of Lucy’s final moments, we find out that he’s been in a nursing home for months. Why do we find that out? Because he knows it then.

That moment where he wakes up in the nursing home instead of in his bed might have occurred anywhere in the film, but it is saved for the last ten to fifteen minutes or so precisely because it is meant to be a reveal, just as much as the first time he sees another woman (Williams) as Anne, or sees a man he doesn’t recognize (Mark Gatiss) as her husband Paul (Rufus Sewell), or sees a young carer named Laura (Imogen Poots) as Lucy. Zeller (and I suppose his co-writer on this, the veteran Christopher Hampton) are not searching for our heartbeats or our tears when they write those in so much as they are searching for our gasps, and I guess that’s why I gasped a little at the initial reveal of Olivia Williams as Anne but generally believe this movie is a bloodless little affair which is a showcase for Hopkins’ acting, Zeller’s script, and Peter Francis’ and Cathy Featherstone’s production design. It succeeds on all of those fronts.

Certainly, this is an incredibly talky performance from Hopkins, who is obstreperous and baffled and as subtle as a child. There’s not much that separates Hopkins from whoever else you’d like to see in this part in terms of facial expression or bemusement, and so the talkier this movie is the better it goes for him. That scene in the nursing home is sort of whatever, but I think witnessing some of the nastiness hanging around in the man, and how snakelike quick it is in biting others, gives Hopkins room to shine. Anthony hasn’t lost his mind enough to enjoy the happy little voices that Laura uses on him; in the scene where he meets her, he absolutely lets her have it by being funny, calling her beautiful, comparing her to Lucy, and then backhanding her with a comment about how both of them were guilty of an annoying “inane” laughter. Writing this on Oscars Sunday, the smart money is on Chadwick Boseman to pick up Best Actor, and the lament from many critics and prognosticators is that while Boseman was good in Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom, the narrative will scurry away that statuette from a more deserving performance from Hopkins. To this I’ll say that if Hopkins were to win, it’d be just as much about a narrative as it would be about performances. I think this is a good performance, but like Boseman’s, it is guilty of first-degree performing to the back row in a cavernous theater.

Zeller’s words have as many curlicues as Hopkins’ performance—I would bet that every “eh,” “huh,” “heh,” and “oh” that Hopkins says is written out in that screenplay—and there are some stagey touches which could stand be excised. Everyone feels too much too soon, such as Anne’s tears in Laura’s first meeting with Anthony; this is the kind of thing one finds in plays all the time, but it’s bizarre to watch Colman wiping away tears for this bad experience on a fourth carer? The character of Laura is also not formed in any serious way, mostly because she’s there to look like Lucy and give us the clue to a dead daughter who will reveal the shuffling set of pajamas in a nursing home in the final sequence. What that means is that Laura is bad at her job for the sake of drama. She brings up Lucy all by herself to Anthony, who she understands to be pretty far gone, and on her first morning at work with him. To say the least I cannot imagine that anyone who has any experience—and Laura has that experience, given some earlier dialogue—would start off with trauma with a patient who can barely remember who or where he is. There are also multiple sequences of looped dialogue or characters who say the exact same thing as other characters, and while this is reasonable enough given the film’s focus, it comes off as incredibly neat for a man whose mind is anything but.

The one element of this movie which I think really works tirelessly, consistently, and effectively to convey Anthony’s slide is the production design. For one thing, there are so many details about the different flats, the different tchotchkes and statues, the different but nearly identical kitchen setups, the reliance on creams and blues in all of them, which to a space make Anthony’s confusion so much more potent. There would be real reward on a rewatch of this film in which the viewer might track which items and chairs and lighting fixtures belong in what place in Anthony’s life. The organization here is really staggering, but in the moment it makes home feel like a very disquieting place indeed. No other element of The Father does that so well.

2 thoughts on “The Father (2020)

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