Playwright-turned-fillmaker Florian Zeller continues his one-man war on the world’s tear ducts with another hard-hitting portrait of domestic life in extremis. A loose sequel to the Oscar-winning The Father, and again adapted from his own stage play and featuring a bang-on-form Anthony Hopkins, The Son is a portrait of parents and teenagers, and the chasms that can grow between them. And like The Father, it’s a tough but rewarding watch.
Hugh Jackman plays hotshot lawyer Peter Miller, a man who seems to have it all: a loving partner, Beth (Vanessa Kirby), and new baby, the kind of Manhattan apartment that appears in Wallpaper* magazine, and the prospect of a political career in the offing.
But when his ex-wife, Kate (Laura Dern), appears at his door with news that their depressed 17-year-old son, Nicholas (Zen McGrath), has been skipping school for a month, the first crack appears. Soon, Nicholas is shrugging off his desperate mum’s efforts to help and moving in with his dad and stepmum. And that’s when the wheels really come off.
Mental illness acts as a kind of stick in the spokes of complacent parenting here. As Nicholas falls deeper into despair, Peter is horrified to discover that his toolkit for helping is closer than he thought to that of his cold, selfish father (Hopkins in a small but magnificently spiky role). Anger and frustration begin to come more quickly as fatigue and anxiety bite. Is he, god forbid, slowly turning into his own monstrous dad? More importantly, does he even understand, or trust, his son?
Florian Zeller continues his war on the world’s tear ducts with another portrait of domestic life in extremis
Certainly, the film doesn’t paint Nicholas as entirely trustworthy: he’s not above manipulating his parents and may be gaslighting Beth by hiding her belongings. But his actions stem from a deeper survival instinct – cries for help that Peter struggles to answer.
Zeller, who again co-adapts with Atonement writer Christopher Hampton, isn’t as successful at shaking off The Son’s theatrical roots as he was with The Father. Beyond some gauzy flashbacks to a long-ago holiday, it’s a very internal film, full of meaty dialogue scenes but with less of the cinematic sleight-of-hand to challenge your perspective on what you’re seeing. There’s a Chekhovian plot device that’s too clunky by half – you’ll know it when you see it – and an ending that belies the subtlety of what’s come before.
But there’s also real power in this depiction of the precariousness of family life. With Jackman on career-best form – he’s surely a strong shout to pick up his first Best Actor nomination – and fellow Aussie McGrath bringing edge and unpredictability as the spiralling Nicholas, The Son is smartly played and full of empathy and compassion.The Son premiered at the Venice Film Festival. It’s out in US theaters Nov 11.