Stark Raving Dad — The Father
Like the Simpsons episode that bears that title, you will not find this review on Disney+. I felt the need to do one super lame joke because by the time I was done watching The Father, I was desperate for any degree of humor. Directed and co-written by Florian Zeller adapting his own stage play, this film is a note-perfect depiction of dementia presented as a stream of consciousness, and it’s absolutely emotionally devastating. Dedicated performances from the small ensemble cast, particularly from the leads, make this a palatable tragedy of the human mind, but I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t on the verge of breaking down in tears as the credits rolled.
There’s not much of a plot to speak of, because in the mind of Anthony (Anthony Hopkins), time essentially has no meaning. Brief changes in wardrobe are the only hint that one moment is different from any other. On the barest of bones, the story is about, who Anthony suffers from dementia, including severe memory loss. His daughter, Anne (Olivia Colman) is trying desperately to set him up with a live-in care nurse, to prevent him having to be moved to a nursing home, but he keeps falling out with whoever she hires. Eventually Anthony hits it off with a woman named Laura (Imogen Poots), because she reminds him of his other daughter, Lucy, and there’s hope that she’ll work out.
But honestly, none of these story points matter, because nothing in the film makes sense by design. Anthony will be talking to Anne, and then he’ll go into the next room where a man claiming to be Anne’s husband Paul (Mark Gatiss) calmly tries to explain the situation. Then Anne will show back up, only it’s not Anne, but a somewhat similar-looking woman played by Olivia Williams. Then Paul will turn into Rufus Sewell and act out towards Anthony with hostility. And before Anthony, or the audience, can get a hold on things, it switches to another time of day, with different players, or the scene might simply repeat in a different room.
The whole ordeal is a continually broken cycle, with small changes each time. It’s not a time loop story so much as it is a chaotic blur of people and places. There have been several films in this Awards Season that are adapted from stage plays (and this is at least the second done so by the original playwright), but more than any other this one feels like a play that’s being filmed. Normally that would be a knock against the presentation, but here it’s kind of essential. To illustrate the confined, collapsing space of Anthony’s mind, you need tight quarters, small rooms, narrow hallways, and props that can appear and disappear basically at will. I can imagine a staging where Olivia Colman is on one side of the set talking next to Anthony with barstools in front of her, then he turns his back on her to talk to Paul, Colman’s area goes dark, and when Anthony turns back, that area lights back up, only it’s Olivia Williams now and the barstools have been replaced by straight back table chairs. That’s how quickly things can change from Anthony’s perspective.
All this serves the core purpose, to as accurately and heartbreakingly as possible depict the waking nightmare that is dementia. The confusion, the lack of consistency, the paranoia, the insisting of things that aren’t true and the anger and resentment being corrected can bring, it’s all very familiar. I’ve been dealing with this for the last year with my mother, and my sister is on the front line of it because she still lives close to home. To see Anthony Hopkins put on a screen what I’ve had to watch and listen to for the last year hit me like a ton of bricks. Every time you turn around it’s body blow after body blow as he wavers from lucid to deranged, confident to cowed, angry to profoundly frightened. It’s a powerhouse performance and every second of it just killed me.
The rest of the cast works wonders to reinforce the figurative and literal insanity. Colman’s the best of the bunch, but everyone plays their part by reminding Anthony of where he is in a given moment, even if the information is contradictory. There’s a runner about whether Anne is going to move to Paris with her husband, or with another man, or if she’s going to move at all. At any given moment the story could be different, but the one constant is that no matter what Anthony thinks is going on, he’s wrong. The entire supporting cast — with the exception of Poots who humors him a little — tells him that his impression of the moment is incorrect, and that whatever line they’re using is what’s always been the truth. It can come off like some sort of Orwellian gaslighting, but it’s just a testament to how far gone Anthony is.
Then there’s Zeller’s script. There are a number of lines that get repeated over and over again by different people at different times, which only adds to the intentional confusion. Anthony dismisses the idea of going to Paris because “they don’t even speak English there.” Dinner every night is chicken. Both versions of Paul derisively ask him when he’s going to stop “sticking around and getting on everyone’s tits.” Even the few things in the film that are consistent become muddled in Anthony’s brain because there’s a disconnect between the words and the moment. It’s a wonderfully vivid demonstration of cognitive dissonance, even if I had to wipe my eyes more than a few times during.
And then, finally, there’s Olivia Colman’s performance. Anthony Hopkins does wonders with the demands of his role, but it’s Colman who carries the emotional heft. As I said, my sister and I have endured a lot over the last year, and the face Colman puts on it is so human I might as well be looking at a much more attractive mirror reflection. She takes the slings and arrows as they come, fending off insults about her own intellect and the accusation that she’s trying to steal Anthony’s home. Oh yeah, we’ve been through that a BUNCH. She does her best not to snap at him or cause any further distress, because none of this is his fault. It’s just something that happened, like it happens to hundreds of thousands of people every year. She wants to do right by him and get him the care he needs while still being sympathetic to his wants. I can’t tell you how many hoops my sister and I have jumped through over the last year to try to save mom’s house because all she wants to do is go home and not be in a facility, but she’s not safe on her own despite her insistence on the matter, and if she doesn’t improve the house will almost certainly have to be sold. We do our best to help, but it may not be enough. Every second that Colman tries to cope with what’s going on I just want to hug her and say it’ll be alright, even though we both know it won’t be. She can prove time and again that the nurses aren’t stealing Anthony’s things, but it won’t do any good. Something will flicker in his mind to derail his attention, and it might even be something positive and fun, a reminder of the man he was, but before long he’ll be right back on whatever line of reasoning he can muster, and the tragic cycle begins anew.
It’s real. It’s real and it’s gut-wrenching. Never before has dementia been so viscerally depicted that I can remember, and it tears at my very soul. I remember watching The Last Thing He Wanted last year and thinking that the only good part was Willem Dafoe portraying an aging father with dementia and chewing scenery like it was a goddamn buffet. I would kill for that comparative lightheartedness now after watching what Anthony Hopkins and Olivia Colman have put on the screen. For me, not only is The Father an emotional ordeal of real-life melodrama, but it’s also a horror film in a sense. I love my mind. I love my consciousness. It’s what I fear to lose more than anything. I don’t even necessarily fear death so much as the loss of that awareness, that sentience. To become what Hopkins depicts here is my version of Hell, which is why after everything that’s gone on with mom, I’ve decided to make my advance directives to at least give my family guidance should this fate ever befall me. And I apologize if I’ve gotten too personal in this review, but there are few films and few subject matters that can have this large of an effect on me at this particular moment in time. The Father is a truly great film, and for me, one that hits home more than words can say.
Join the conversation in the comments below! What film should I review next? Have you dealt with dementia in your family? Do you think it’s cathartic to see it depicted on screen? Let me know!