Awarded with two golden statues, the Oscars gets it right.
|Screenplay:||Florian Zeller, Christopher Hampton|
|Cast:||Anthony Hopkins, Olivia Colman, Rufus Sewell, Olivia Williams, Mark Gatiss|
Anthony Hopkins plays Anthony and Olivia Colman plays Anne. Over the course of ‘The Father’, she attempts to convince her father to move from his flat to a care home where he can be better cared for and he attempts to resist these suggestions as his home is his castle. He believes he is capable of caring for himself. And that’s the plot. What happens around this admittedly sketchy outline is what makes ‘The Father’ a phenomenally compelling piece of drama. I wouldn’t describe it as entertainment, although it is, but it is entertaining to a fault. Wondrously, in fact.
Constructed to confuse, it imagines a mind that imagines without boundaries, a fascinating central character suffering from dementia. Moral dilemmas are posed but not answered. At what point must one take control of another’s life, stealing their self-determination against their will in order to maintain their dignity? After all, without the awareness of space and time to ground ones imagination, how can one tell the difference between fact and fiction, reality and fantasy, a dream and a nightmare? Most fragile is the mind – ‘The Father’ will remind you of that.
Nominated for six Oscars and six BAFTAs, including Best Picture and Best Film, respectively, Hopkins took home his second (from the former) and fourth (from the latter) Best Actor trophy while Zeller and Hampton triumphed in the Best Adapted Screenplay category at both awards ceremonies, and deservedly so. While Hopkins will undoubtedly be defined (perhaps forever) for his first Oscar winning performance in ‘The Silence of the Lambs’ 30 years ago, with his chillingly clinical encapsulation of the psychopathic Dr. Hannibal Lecter elevating the character to the status of a cultural icon despite only 16 minutes of screen time, his mesmeric portrayal of the father in the film of the same name are where the comparisons conclude. Both were worthy of Oscars to merit work of equal stature but for the polar opposite of reasons.
In ‘The Father’, Hopkins dominates almost every scene for 90 minutes, oscillating between excoriating monologues denouncing those he believes to be his intellectual subordinates (commanding in the dexterity of their deliverance) and emotional breakdown after a complete loss of control, dignity and identity relying on the consoling reassurance of strangers (heart-breaking in their tragedy and breath-taking in their rawness). As the maze like set design, a convincing mirage itself, gradually degrades itself from a rich city flat to a poor care home wing, Hopkins’ Anthony retreats from a position of king over his domain to prisoner within it. He becomes ever more confused, isolated and frightened, a painful existence shared by those around him albeit through a pain of glass preventing either side from the ability to connect.
Because, of course, this is what dementia does. All sides suffer due to helplessness; there is no cure for the sufferer while those around them have to care without the help they need, sadly leading to exasperation, anger and resentment. As Anne, Colman displays this grief, for the loss of a person before their death, with aching subtlety and inspiring poise that will resonate beyond description. For these reasons, ‘The Father’ and the man whom plays him are admirably brave for sailing close to the wind, forging ahead with essential material where others have feared to tread. Hopkins shares the same name and birth date as his character which inevitably leads one to imagine that they could also share the same future, however unimaginable the idea of one of the greatest minds destroyed by this disease might be. Is Hopkins playing a future version of himself? Unlikely, but the point is one is forced to confront the fact that this could happen to anyone. Even, perhaps, the best.
More cynically, dementia works wonders for character development providing writers with their vehicles for plot twists from the point of view of an unreliable narrator and actors with the necessary complicated personalities that attract significant awards season attention. Indeed, Meryl Streep, Julianne Moore and Glenda Jackson have all received BAFTAs for their brilliant turns as dementia sufferers in ‘The Iron Lady’, ‘Still Alice’ and ‘Elizabeth Is Missing’, respectively. Less cynically, however, it is only right that more films that deal with the disease are made and discussed as ever more of the population will succumb to its clutches and won’t have access to the help they need. In this instance, ‘The Father’ also stands apart from the rest in its lacerating portrayal of deteriorating mental health from the perspective of a man – at pains to point out that he doesn’t need help and can manage perfectly well on his own. Resonating, much?
Of course, actors are only as good as their writers and directors and here is where the other Oscar-winning facet of this story makes its mark. Apart from a few shots at the beginning, middle and end and of the film, ‘The Father’ takes place entirely within the confines of the rich city flat, cleverly invoking the claustrophobia of a retreat to then entrapment within one’s own mind. Zeller adapts his 2012 play ‘Le Père’, winner of the Molière Award for Best Play (the French equivalent of the Tony and Olivier Awards), with Hampton for film creating a masterstroke of screenwriting, audacious in its plotting and rapturous in its dialogue and directs the film with tight control that doesn’t detract from the action.
Repeating the beginning and ending of scenes with the same text and camera positions and dialogue with multiple characters are smart devices that captures the state of disorientation one can only imagine a dementia sufferer may experience. Originally premiering on the French stage almost a decade ago, its themes of denial, rage and fear from anxiety, aging and hopelessness are timeless but its specific targeting of these images through the prism of memory loss makes this story a prescient masterpiece for these times as the symptoms of dementia will have been exacerbated for many by the incalculable damage wrought by the isolation, loneliness and abandonment of national lockdowns imposed to combat the ongoing coronavirus pandemic. Most fragile is the mind – without stimulation it will wander, fill in the blanks and invert reality, creating a new and frightening parallel universe from the real world for itself as a place of refuge and self-care, perhaps, from a reality that may be too harsh to bear but which is now indistinguishable from the old world where, sadly, the care others want to provide still resides. What is the greater cruelty then? For whom?
As with his supporting performance as Pope Benedict XVI in the 2019 film ‘The Two Popes’ which also resulted in Oscar and BAFTA nominations, Hopkins’ dynamism with a screenplay this ferocious is extraordinary. Nominated for an Oscar and BAFTA for her supporting turn here, Colman conveys the worry of the bystander whom is knowingly fighting a losing battle, her eyes welling at both the humiliation and kindness shone in her direction by her ailing father as their already strained relationship becomes ever more fraught. As she is the one challenging his authority, however passively, he chooses her to sublimate his vindictiveness as a form of self-protection. Ultimately, they are both left to fend for themselves making each at once a reassuring and threatening presence for the other. Another tragedy.
Notable support from Rufus Sewell, Olivia Williams and Mark Gatiss as a frustrated husband, compassionate carer and home invader (where they have the most impact on the story), respectively, are key to greater sympathising with Hopkins’ Anthony; a once flaming fireplace reduced to smouldering embers albeit not by his own hands. A domestic tragedy of Shakespearean proportions, ‘The Father’ is operatic, devastating and haunting. And, hopefully, a talisman for greater awareness. As an artistic study of dementia – it’s the best I’ve ever seen. So far.
The Father is in cinemas now.