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The Father review - gripping dementia drama | reviews, news & interviews

The Father review - gripping dementia drama

The Father review - gripping dementia drama

Anthony Hopkins and Olivia Colman star in Florian Zeller's Oscar-winning film adaptation

Anne (Olivia Colman) and Anthony (Anthony Hopkins) in The Father

Florian Zeller: the name might not be familiar in the world of cinema. But watch this space.

His stage play Le Père was widely praised, made its way to Broadway and, following the success, the young French director has adapted it into The Father, a big statement film debut that places the audience in the position of an ageing dementia sufferer. Adaptation sceptics can shed their fears. This is a cinematic achievement that towers in its own right.

We first see Anne (Olivia Colman) hurrying to the grand London mansion flat of her father, Anthony (Anthony Hopkins). In the spacious, decorated rooms there is a disarming tension because Anthony, in denial about his condition, has driven away another carer, claims that he needs no help, and punishes Anne for trying to offer more. The drama subsides and Anthony and Anne drift apart. When we think a resolution has settled, Anthony becomes alarmed. There is a man in his living room that he doesn’t recognise. This man says that he owns the flat. This man says that he is Anne’s husband.

How do you portray the experience of dementia? It’s a brave endeavour fraught with sensitivities, in part because it is a logical impossibility. Perhaps because of this contradiction, Zeller has aimed for recognition rather than verisimilitude. We are placed into Anthony’s perspective of the world in order to feel something of what he might feel, rather than to be taught a fact. So, gradually, minor details build and take on uncanny significance. What we know suddenly changes. A detail we may have ignored reappears as a key piece in the plot's puzzle.

This is how Zeller has turned a family drama into a gripping thriller. Nothing is certain and every word or item could emerge later with decisive meaning. Once we realise the film's framework we are faced with a dilemma. It might be the dilemma of the dementia sufferer: look away and you'll forget. Lose attention and the world before you slips away.

The FatherHow easy it would be to flood a film like this with flamboyant trickery or showy pull-the-rug-out stunts. Zeller resists. His film is as much about the interior worlds of his characters as it is about the maze-world they shuffle through. The balance is met with grace. The gimmicky version of a script like this would not capture the breathless pre-grief of Colman’s performance, let alone the cavernous and knee-bending emotional power of Hopkins.

These lead performances have received all the attention, deservedly so, but Zeller’s directing remains underpraised. The poise of camerawork, the wielding of a single setting and the refrains of Ludovico Einaldi’s score might remind some Netflix-benumbed consumers of the excitement and drama that is possible through restraint, subtlety, patient observation and formal control. Zeller does far more than merely achieve on film those effects that could not be achieved on stage. He makes an original contribution to a movie genre that stretches from Hitchcock’s Rear Window to Haneke’s Amour.

But Zeller is no Hitchcock (at least not yet). And Amour will remain the greatest film about memory loss, or any other personal crisis, in recent memory. Yet The Father is a powerful debut. The mood of isolation with its warped sense of time and the distanced characters confined to their homes: this film reflects our present moment without labouring the point home or making the obvious analogies. After a year restricted to watching attention seeking streaming content, welcome back to the cinema. Welcome back to feeling. And watch this space. What will Zeller do next?

Zeller does far more than merely achieve on film those effects that could not be achieved on stage


Editor Rating: 
Average: 5 (1 vote)

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