Anthony Hopkins's portrayal of dementia will undo you: The Father reviewed

12 June 2021

9:00 AM

12 June 2021

9:00 AM

The Father

12A, Nationwide

The Father is an immensely powerful film about dementia starring Sir Anthony Hopkins, who was asleep in his bed in Wales when his Best Actor Oscar was announced, so we’ll never know if his outfit would have been a hit or a miss. Shall we give him the benefit of the doubt and say ‘hit’? Either way, he is absolutely remarkable here. I read the screenplay, available online, out of curiosity, and what he brings to the words on the page is beyond and beyond and beyond. Hopkins has played King Lear (twice) but this is his real King Lear.

Adapting it from his own play (with help from Christopher Hampton), Florian Zeller has also directed the film. Zeller wrote the part specifically for Hopkins, hence our main character is called Anthony. This Anthony lives in a magnificent flat in an expensive part of London and the action rarely strays. But, miraculously, it never feels stagey as so many plays that become films do. Anthony is visited daily by his daughter Anne (Olivia Colman). She is at her wits’ end as he called his last carer a ‘little bitch’ and now she has quit. She stole his watch, he protests. Anne retrieves his watch from his hiding place under the bath. Well, he says, she would have stolen it, had she known where it was. My own father suffered from paranoid delusion at the end. I was shredding his paperwork, I was burning his suits, I had stolen his wallet. I swear to you, I was doing none of these things. I was often impatient and now I wish I’d watched this film, which makes you see how terrifying it must be to think you’ve lost your watch (or wallet) while knowing, at some level, that what you are losing is your own self. ‘Who exactly am I?’ Anthony will ask at one point.

Uniquely, this is told mostly from Anthony’s point of view as we’re taken into his bewildering, distressing world. We experience his confusion as if it were our own. Cut to the next scene and the kitchen in the flat is different, or chairs from the doctor’s office are stacked in the hall. What’s going on here?, he is asking himself, and we are asking the same. Is this even his flat, as he seems to believe, or has he moved in with Anne and her partner, Paul (Rufus Sewell)? He is starting to fail to recognise people. Why is Anne no longer Anne and now being played by Olivia Williams and why is Paul now being played by Mark Gatiss? He must negotiate one illogical situation after another as if trapped in a puzzle that can never be solved. We lose our grip on reality with him and comprehend his suffering — most painfully, a once-controlling man is no longer in control — as well as Anne’s. She is deeply attached to her father, even if her younger sister was his favourite, and even if he was probably never a particularly nice man. Anne sometimes fantasises about putting a pillow over Anthony’s head but when, at one stage, she helps him put his sweater on, that scene is so suffused with compassion and love it will undo you.

Colman is, of course, terrific, but it’s Hopkins’s film, as he rages King Lear-style one moment, and is a scared, abandoned child wanting his mummy the next. Or is vicious one moment, and extraordinarily vulnerable the next. There is stand-out scene after stand-out scene, including one where he convinces his new carer (Imogen Poots) that he had been a tap dancer — he’d actually been an engineer — which is kind of joyful, but also excruciatingly heart-breaking. I’d like to say a scene like that is something I will never forget but, as this film tells us, you can never say that for sure.

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