The Father is playwright, Florian Zeller’s directorial debut. He co-wrote the screenplay with fellow playwright Christopher Hampton based on his own 2012 play, Le Père. I’ve read and written about Le Père on several occasions. It’s an important dementia text in its attempts to allow the audience to see the world through the eyes of someone living with dementia. It is a disorientating, confusing experience but also an incredibly powerful one and none of these sensibilities have been lost in moving the play to the big screen. Though the film still feels reminiscent of a stage play -most of the scenes take place within a handful of rooms- Zeller uses the set to his advantage. The London flat in which the film takes place changes subtly throughout: colour schemes blend, furniture moves and is replaced, and the flat’s layout is almost impossible to comprehend. As in the play, Zeller uses the physical environment of his set to convey a sense of disorientation. It is a very effective technique.
The storyline is a simple one. Anthony, (played impeccably by Anthony Hopkins who received an Oscar for this role), is an older man living with dementia in his daughter’s flat. The daughter, Anne, also beautifully played by Olivia Colman, (honestly this is the cast of dreams), is her father’s sole carer and increasingly distressed by the progress of his illness. Anthony runs through a series of in-house carers. He struggles to get on with anyone. He confuses time. He mistakes Anne’s flat for his own and most worryingly sometimes does not recognise Anne or her husband, (a rather mean, Rufus Sewell). Zeller uses different actors to show the audience what Anthony is seeing when he adamantly insists that this strange woman is not his daughter and this strange man isn’t married to her. The technique is so effective and unsettling that I began to feel as if The Father might be classified as a horror movie. Several of the tropes were present. The domestic familiar made threatening. The oppressive lighting and use of colour. The constant undermining of reality. The set, in particular, reminded me of the house in the Australian horror film The Relic where walls move and doors disappear, mirroring the confusion of a person living with dementia.
The Father is a difficult watch. It’s beautifully executed and almost perfectly acted by all involved. As an experiment in empathetical viewing it’s really ground-breaking. The viewer is pitched into Anthony’s shoes and spends the following 90 minutes as confused and disorientated as he is. However, there’s little in the way of character development. Aside from a small backstory about his dead daughter we discover very little about Anthony as a man who has lived a long life. For the purpose of the film, he is simply a man with dementia and at times I found this a little reductive though I don’t think Zeller’s intention is to provoke sympathy or even soft empathy for a fully-developed Anthony. He wants the viewer to see the world through the eyes of present day Anthony where dementia has become his dominant narrative. I also appreciated the inclusion of both the examples of elder abuse, (from Anne’s husband), and professional care staff treating Anthony with exemplary kindness and dignity. This is a nuanced portrayal of caring which shows both the worst and best aspects of the care system. One last small point of critique. The characters in The Father are very posh and capable of spending enormous amounts of money on professional care for Anthony. It would be nice to see more examples of working class characters navigating the care system. As frequently noted, there is a distinct lack of diversity when it comes to portraying characters living with dementia.
The Father was directed by Florian Zeller and released in the UK in June 2021