Six weeks have passed since this year’s Oscars were handed out – weeks that have seen cinema doors re-open, giving us the chance to see some of the winners on the big screen where they belong. Audiences were able to fully experience the likes of Nomadland, Sound Of Metal and Minari, all originally released online during the lockdown, but other titles have simply waited their turn to make sure of a cinema-only debut. The most significant is The Father, which won Anthony Hopkins his second Best Actor statuette for what is simply the performance of his career.
It’s such a strong, convincing and heartrending performance that it would be too easy to talk about him and not the film as a whole. In which case, it’s a testament to the rest of the cast, the script and the direction that it gives us so much to consider that we hardly know where to start. Let’s be conventional about it. Anthony (Hopkins) is an elderly man who lives in a comfortable London mansion flat, visited daily by his older daughter Anne (Olivia Colman) and with a carer Laura (Imogen Poots) to look after his practical needs. But it’s clear that he’s declining, that his mind is confusing the recent and the more distant, that important events in his life have faded from memory and he’s forgetting who people are. And Anne can’t avoid the fact that she needs to make a dramatic, and painful, decision.
That’s the linear version, but what you see on the screen isn’t so much of a narrative as a voyage into a declining mind, one that appears sharp and tuned in to the world but unpredictably becomes fogged over with clouds of confusion, unable to distinguish between similar – but not the same – locations or, more disturbingly, recognise those closest to them. There’s something elusive about the reality Anthony lives in, slippery almost: one moment, he grasps it firmly, the next it slips through his fingers and he can’t understand why. He’s lost his watch – a recurring theme – and is convinced his carer has stolen it. And when he finds it, hidden in his secret place that everybody knows about, he won’t admit he was wrong to accuse her.
Director Florian Zeller also wrote the original stage play. We’ve had a recent flurry of quality films based on theatrical pieces but this adaptation, in conjunction with Christopher Hampton, is a step up in that it breaks free of the shackles that usually come with the territory. Yes, it has a mainly interior setting, but there’s more than one, and the two apartments are so similar, with their long corridors and almost identical layouts, that they become a manifestation of Anthony’s confusion, although there’s enough differences for us to distinguish between the two. For the first half hour, there’s a definite hint of a thriller, the possibility that this may all be a sinister manipulation of a vulnerable man. The reality of the situation emerges slowly, reaching a shattering crescendo which, in its way, is just as devastating.
By his own admission, Hopkins channelled some of his own father in his portrayal – Hopkins Senior had a terminal illness, but not dementia. Whatever his inspiration, this is unquestionably the crowning achievement of a distinguished career, one that’s lasted over 50 years and shows no signs of fading. He is, quite simply, extraordinary: cantankerous, humorous, angry, pitiful, frustrated – a melting pot of emotions that have him under their control, rather than the other way round. Colman is as immaculate as ever as his faithful, but not favourite, daughter, facing a decision which tears her in two and trying to hold her feelings – grief, guilt, anger – in check. Poots, Mark Gatiss, Rufus Sewell and the often underrated Olivia Williams make a top drawer supporting cast and there’s never a hint of a false note. The same goes for the entire film. It won’t let go of your mind for ages afterwards. Nor will you want it to.
Drama | Cert: 12A | Cinemas | Lionsgate | 11 June 2021 | Dir. Florian Zeller | Anthony Hopkins, Olivia Colman, Imogen Poots, Rufus Sewell, Mark Gatiss, Olivia Williams.