Producers: Simon Friend, Christophe Spadone, Philippe Carcassonne, Jean-Louis Livi and David Parfitt Director: Florian Zeller Screenplay: Christopher Hampton and Florian Zeller Cast: Anthony Hopkins, Olivia Colman, Mark Gatiss, Imogen Poots, Rufus Sewell, Olivia Williams and Ayesha Dharker Distributor: Sony Pictures Classics
Last year Darius Marder used the sound possibilities of film to convey the trauma of a man confronting the loss of his hearing in “Sound of Metal.” Now Florian Zeller, in collaboration with Christopher Hampton, employs the visual potential the screen affords to portray the desperate sense of dislocation that characterizes the ravages of dementia in this adaptation of his 2012 play.
The means employed to do so are fundamentally simple yet extremely effective. Time shift are abrupt and unexpected. Individual characters appear in different guises played by different actors. Circumstances change confusingly from moment to moment. Everything, in short, is kept up in the air.
But the perspective remains that of the person experiencing the disorientation, and though the contributions of the supporting cast are hardly insignificant, it’s the actor in the lead role who’s indispensable to the effect. In that respect Zeller couldn’t be more fortunate: Anthony Hopkins gives a magisterial performance in the title part, capturing the mercurial nature of the stricken man with blistering intensity and conviction.
The character, also named Anthony, is an octogenarian widower living in an elegant London flat, using headphones to listen to operatic arias—he seems to favor the singularly apt “What power art thou” from Purcell’s “King Arthur,” though he occasionally resorts to Puccini. He’s visited by his daughter Anne (Olivia Colman), who’s concerned that he’s lost his most recent caregiver. The woman said he’d attacked her; he claims she was a thief who stole his watch.
Though Anthony claims not to need nursing, his adamant insistence on independence immediately turns to pleading when Anne informs him she’s moving to Paris. He turns into a gallant when Laura (Imogen Poots), a young woman applying for the caretaking job, appears, though here too he can turn to agitation and rejection at the slightest provocation.
But Anne is not always Colman; elsewhere she’s played by Olivia Williams, and Anthony encounters her ex-husband first in the person of Mark Gattis’ Bill, who’s solicitous toward him, and then as Paul, played by Rufus Sewell, who’s much less so. There are also recurrent references to Anthony’s second daughter, whom he desperately wants to see again—and eventually does.
In trying to make logical sense of all this, the viewer is effectively put in the same state as Anthony, who’s trapped in an ever-changing, fluid world he cannot control or comprehend. It’s a harrowing experience to live through the experience with Hopkins, who so totally inhabits the role that his every gesture and inflection seems unerringly right. All the other performers are splendid, but Colman stands out for capturing Anne’s sad observation of her failing father so well.
No less important is the appearance of the film. Though the action, apart from a heartbreaking coda, is confined to a single apartment, it avoids seeming static or stagey as a result of not only Zeller’s skillful molding, but the subtle work of his collaborators. Production designer Peter Francis’ discreet changes of décor add to the sense of uncertainty, while cinematographer Ben Smithard’s use of light and shadow adds to the atmosphere of murkiness and Yorgos Lamprinos’ editing avoids obvious fractures while never allowing the smoothness of normalcy. Ludovico Einaudi’s score incorporates the classical excerpts in a way that makes them integral to the somber mood rather than mere affectations, as is so often the case.
But as much as one can admire the other elements of “The Father,” it is Hopkins’ astonishing performance that is the most remarkable. He’s an actor who’s never been less than watchable even in mediocre projects or absolute junk (and, truth be told, he’s appeared in a good deal of it over the decades), but at his best he is simply overpowering. And by the time you watch him in the coda here, the impact is devastating. His 2018 film of “King Lear” might have been a shade disappointing, but here he paints a portrait of mental deterioration that’s absolutely riveting.
“The Father” will be hard for all viewers to watch, some more than others. But it’s a lacerating depiction of decline, marked by one of the finest performances ever given by arguably the best actor of our time.