Moviegoer: The Father

Olivia Colman and Anthony Hopkins star in The Father.

A heartbreaking film about mental decline 

By Diana Beechener 

Something is wrong in Anthony’s flat. After living there 30 years, Anthony (Anthony Hopkins: The Two Popes) can’t seem to figure out what’s happening. Things are changing, objects moving without explanation, and his watch, he fears, has been stolen. 

His daughter Anne (Olivia Colman: The Crown) isn’t any help. She keeps running in and out of rooms, stopping and starting the same conversations over and over again. Sometimes, he swears she’s a completely different person.  

Suddenly, the flat changes and Anne insists it’s not his flat at all, but hers. It’s obviously a conspiracy, and Anthony starts to wonder whether or not he can trust those around him. Why would they try to fool him? Why do they all insist on lying to him? 

An emotionally devastating film, The Father is a look at how dementia deteriorates the mind from the perspective of the patient. Co-writer/director Florian Zeller (in his feature debut) based the film on his 2012 play of the same name. He brilliantly captures all the subtle and overt ways reality shifts and bends for someone who is suffering from mental decline. It’s his goal to give us the perspective of someone with this affliction, showing us how reality bends and snaps in frightening ways. Zeller cleverly uses a subtle trick of keeping the basic structures of the apartments similar so the audience doesn’t immediately realize when the environment changes. It serves to disorient the audience in the same way it does Anthony, letting us see how unsettling it is to suddenly question your environment.  

Zeller also lets reality bleed together in fascinating ways. Multiple actors play the same role, helping us feel Anthony’s confusion. Sometimes the actors are kind, sometimes cruel; reality is presented in a tangle of scenes that the audience must try to make sense of—just as Anthony must.  

At the center of the film is a career-best performance from Hopkins. His Anthony is charming, lively, and astonishingly cutting, depending on the whims of his mood. Sometimes, he’s a whip-smart man who’s furious at what he deems to be a condescending attitude from his daughter. Other times, he’s the victim of a vast conspiracy that he doesn’t quite understand. Things he wants to say seem to fall out of his head mid-sentence. He repeats the same joke over and over again, not understanding why no one laughs at it. He is wholly dependent upon his daughter yet resents what he views as her constant interference.  

Watching Hopkins rapidly cycle through confusion, anger, charm, and fear, is astounding. It’s a wonderful reminder of why the 83-year-old actor remains at the top of his game. He never makes Anthony the subject of pity or mockery; it’s a deeply human performance.  

Colman also makes the most of her time playing Anne. She does a beautiful job of conveying the agony one experiences watching a parent decline. She must suffer Anthony’s tantrums and petty barbs because no one else seemingly can help and the world would see her putting him in an institution as abandonment. It’s a quiet, beautiful performance filled with love and suffering.  

Though the film is a haunting, compassionate attempt to reconstruct the confusing, frightening world of a person experiencing a form of dementia, this may not be a movie for everyone. As a person who acted as caregiver for her father, this movie was an incredibly difficult watch, its realism bringing up a lot of the more painful aspects of offering care to a parent. Viewers that have had similar experiences might have a visceral reaction to this movie. Even without a close connection to the subject matter, you may want to make sure you have tissues handy.  

A no-holds-barred look at the tragedy of dementia, The Father is not an easy watch. It is, however, an extremely human and moving film, filled with brilliant performances. It’s a wonderful choice for those interested in a challenging, powerful film.  

The Father is available to rent for $19.99 on Prime or any on-demand service.  

Excellent Drama * PG-13 * 97 mins.