While not in the same genre-riffing vein as Relic, 2020’s Aussie horror that cleverly translated the ravages of dementia into a haunted house flick, The Father has a similar effect: it will leave you unsettled and disorientated, groping about around trying to figure out what’s real and what isn’t. Dementia, as portrayed by the formidable Anthony Hopkins, is a state of permanent self-gaslighting – a cosy, familiar world made hostile. It’s hard to imagine a more powerful illustration of what it’s like to suffer the illness.
Director Florian Zeller, who co-wrote the screenplay with Atonement writer Christopher Hampton, delicately lifts the bones of his own stage play and transplants them onto the screen with real skill. The Father is set almost entirely in one location – the kind of unattainably expensive London flat that tends to pop up in Ian McEwan novels – where fast-waning retired engineer Anthony (Hopkins) stays with his daughter Anne (Olivia Colman). It could easily feel staid and stagey. Yet everything works in harmony to make it cinematic: Writing, acting, camerawork, Ludovico Einaudi’s delicate, melancholy score. Even the layout of the apartment that often maroons Anthony at the end of a corridor or has him retreating into the old armchair that’s as at odds with the environment as he is.
Smart editing by Yorgos Lamprinos sees scenes concertina into one another. Characters (and actors) overlap. Is Anthony’s son-in-law the brusque version played by Mark Gatiss or Rufus Sewell’s snarling yuppie? And isn’t it time he stopped bothering them and moved into a home? And why is Anne now Olivia Williams instead of Olivia Colman? Resentment oozes through this domestic space and laps at Anthony’s feet. Shadows gather.
But it’s Hopkins who makes it work. It’s a performance full of tells and tics and tiny nuances – mixing mute despair with bursts of almost aggressive joie de vivre, often in the same scene. He’s a proud man trying to get a grip on his circumstances and finding no purchase for his hands.
In concert, it all communicates perfectly what dementia must feel like: a world stripped of its signposts, a feeling of being uncoupled, a sense of the familiar slowly becoming frighteningly ‘other’. In an odd way, it reminded me most of Christopher Nolan’s Memento, another film that explores how reliant we are on past memories to make sense of the present – and how threatening the world can feel without them.
Having lost my dad to dementia (albeit a different kind to that which afflicts Anthony), I was deeply moved by the feeling of a loved one slipping away like sand through an hourglass – of a lifelong bond of love and connection hazing over into a two-way-mirror. It’s all there in Olivia Colman’s performance as she communicates the impossible job of keeping one eye on her dad and one on her own life. For the many people impacted by dementia, it won’t be an easy watch – and for those who have experienced it in the past, it may feel like a gentle pressure on an old wound. But it’s a real window into an affliction that is both commonplace and unfathomable. And in that sense, it’s a gift.
In UK cinemas Jun 11.