I don’t need anyone.
The first scene transition in Florian Zeller‘s The Father (adapted from his play “Le Père” with help from Christopher Hampton) is exactly the type of system shock we need to find our footing within an environment that more or less is devoid of ground. We meet Anthony (Anthony Hopkins) soon after he’s forced yet another caretaker from his home. Despite suffering from dementia and prone to the temperamental flare-ups the condition fosters, he staunchly believes he can take care of himself. So his daughter Anne (Olivia Colman) has been struggling to find anyone they can both trust now that she’s about to move to Paris. An assisted living community would probably be the best plan, but Anthony still fights tooth and nail to remain in his flat forever.
A black screen seemingly brings a new day with the assumption that Anne will soon arrive to continue their conversation about the future. So we wait for her to appear while watching Anthony put groceries away before absentmindedly shoving the bag in his pocket in lieu of remembering where it goes. Finally a door is heard for him to call out her name. The lack of answer sees him grabbing a fork as a weapon for self-defense on his way to find an unfamiliar man (Mark Gatiss) reading a newspaper in the living room. Anthony is scared, angry, and confused at the sight only to have each of those emotions exacerbated by learning he’s Anne’s husband. Things get worse when she appears as unfamiliar (Olivia Williams) as him.
Zeller has put us inside Anthony’s unreliable mind to ultimately render the film an untrustworthy figment of his rapidly deteriorating sense of reality. All the details are thrown awry without knowing what to believe. Was the first instance real? Or the second? Is Anne married? Or is she moving to Paris in order to be with her new love? These questions bounce around our heads with more to be added and yet there’s a comfort in the disorientation because we become fully aware of just how uncertain everything proves. This isn’t going to be about some rug pull deception. Zeller isn’t trying to trick us. The goal is instead to put a finger on the waves of clarity and bewilderment Anthony experiences on a daily (sometimes hourly) basis.
So we roll with the next transition putting Colman’s Anne back into view. She’s married to Paul (Rufus Sewell) and they’ve opened their home to Anthony in order to avoid sending him away. We start to look around and wonder at how familiar their flat is to Anthony’s and whether we’ve actually gone somewhere else or his mind has refused to acknowledge he already has in the space between scenes one and three. Eventually, however, such thoughts become anchors bogging down the organic journey playing out on levels of production design and performances that we can’t yet begin to imagine. That’s when the repetition begins, Laura (Imogen Poots) is introduced as a prospective caretaker, and the struggle Anne has endured comes into crippling focus through her father’s eyes.
The narrative unfolds with a powerful visual style as reality folds in on itself while Anthony alternates between vindictiveness, contrition, malice, and guilt. Objects within the setting begin to disappear or change much like the people he’s dealing with around them. Doors open up to doctor’s offices and closets alike while a chicken dinner is perpetually placed in the oven for what seems like night after night after night. Sometimes Anthony is dressed. Sometimes he’s in his pajamas. Sometimes Laura is charmed by his flights of fancy and sometimes she’s devastated by his shift into cruelty. You never know which Anthony you’re going to get or what state his current home will be in and the stress mounts until everything is at risk of falling apart.
I can’t imagine the logistics of watching The Father on-stage as movie magic allows so much to imperceptibly change on the fly—even actors when necessary. We never know which face is going to walk through the door when the names Paul and Laura are mentioned, but we do know how Anthony will react to each the further along we get since more and more details about his life and their place within are revealed. And there by his side is Anne, in one form or another. Whether or not the woman in his view is the actual Anne ultimately proves moot as long as he bestows upon her the love and trust he possesses for his daughter in the abstract. She’s his constant. She’s his safe place.
The production design is therefore one of the strongest aspects of the entire film as this single location becomes a forever-changing character unto itself. Add Ludovico Einaudi‘s music as soundtrack (from his 2019 album Seven Days Walking) and we become entranced through sight and sound while Hopkins provides one of the best performances of his career at its center. He’s just as perplexed by the changes as we are and just as frustrated by others saying things never happened despite our having seen them unfold for ourselves. It’s precisely why Colman can’t be undervalued opposite his stunning transformation. The love her Anne gives his Anthony is heartbreaking in large part because he’s seeing it whether or not he’s fully processing it. Her sorrow is his greatest pain.
And it grows with every push forward. The jumble becomes more convoluted and Anthony’s inability to sustain his conviction in response renders the whole unfathomably sad. That the last shift ultimately occurs how it does without feeling abrupt is a testament to what Zeller has built and our own investment in lingering at the wall he’s erected between fact and fiction as a filter that merges both together rather than a barrier to separate them. And right when the dust finally settles to reveal a bedroom as familiar as it is different, the deluge of emotions that have been suppressed or masked by shame and rage respectively is unleashed. That men and women like Anthony and Anne are able to stave off drowning within it is a miracle.
courtesy of Sony Pictures Classics