Producers: Joanna Laurie, Iain Canning, Emile Sherman, Florian Zeller and Christophe Spadone Director: Florian Zeller Screenplay: Florian Zeller and Christopher Hampton Cast: Hugh Jackman, Laura Dern, Vanessa Kirby, Zen McGrath, Anthony Hopkins, George Cobell, Hugh Quarshie and Gretchen Egolf Distributor: Sony Pictures Classics
Florian Zeller’s “The Father,” a brilliant depiction of an elderly man’s descent into dementia, won accolades in 2020, including an Oscar for Anthony Hopkins that surprised many who assumed the award would go posthumously to Chadwick Boseman for “Black Panther.” Hopkins takes a small but crucial role in Zeller’s follow-up “The Son,” also based on a play of his that he and Christopher Hampton have adapted for the screen, but the starring role in the story of a man’s desperate attempt to deal with his teen son’s psychological deterioration is taken by Hugh Jackman, who gives a powerful, committed performance that, unfortunately, can’t overcome the piece’s melodramatic arc and a weak turn by Zen McGrath as the troubled boy.
Peter Miller (Jackman) is a successful lawyer whose second wife Beth (Vanessa Kirby) has just given birth to their son. He’s also considering a position in a political campaign that would bring him the Washington connections he aspires to. His plans are interrupted, however, by a visit from his former wife Kate (Laura Dern, terrific) who tells him that their son, seventeen-year old Nicholas (McGrath) has been skipping school and is descending into a place of psychological darkness that frightens her. Peter, who has fond memories of the cherubic tyke (played in flashbacks by George Cobell) he taught to swim on a long-ago vacation, not only agrees to talk with the boy, but when Nicholas asks to come and live with him, Beth and his new half-brother, agrees.
At first things appear, at least to Peter, to be going well. Nicholas is enrolled at a new school, and claims to be assimilating nicely. There are even moments of apparent familial happiness, as when Beth encourages Peter to show off his old dance moves and Nicholas joins in their exuberance.
But the optimism is misplaced. Nicholas has been ditching school since his first day with Peter, taking long, desultory walks instead, and has been cutting himself as a way of dealing with the pain of his depression. Beth, like Kate before her, is growing concerned about what the boy might do, especially since she must deal with him during the time that Peter is away at work; and she’s understandably worried about the infant who is her primary responsibility. A psychiatrist (Gretchen Egolf) is consulted, but eventually Nicholas’ suicidal tendencies require a stay in a psych ward where a doctor (Hugh Quarshie) recommends a longer term of confinement. Nicholas, however, claims to be better and begs to come home. What follows won’t be revealed here, but suffice it to say that given what’s occurred before—including one improbable detail—the outcome is unsurprising. Yet Zeller can’t resist a particularly unwise theatrical trick to unsettle us before the close.
The play on which the film is based, which premiered in 2018, was the third in a trilogy of domestic dramas by Zeller; though not connected in terms of narrative, they certainly act as a unit. The first, “The Mother,” about a middle-aged woman’s slide into manic depression after her children leave and she thinks her husband unfaithful, appeared in 2010, and “The Father” in 2012. Both were told from the perspective of their title characters, so at first “The Son,” from 2018, might seem to depart from the pattern: the story is presented not from Nicholas’s point of view, after all, but Peter’s. In fact, Nicholas is rather a peripheral figure—the one to whom the others react, rather than the protagonist. And that’s not merely because McGrath isn’t a developed enough actor to give him much nuance (his main way of showing the character’s depressive state is to bite his fingernails).
On reflection, however, the title might seem appropriate, because Peter is not just father to Nicholas, but the son of Anthony (Hopkins), a Washington power broker whom he visits in a single scene for lunch. Anthony was by all accounts an absent, uncaring father—bringing the picture to sudden life Hopkins endows him with a dismissive, almost sneering air, whose acerbic advice to Peter when he describes having felt abandoned as a child is simply to “get over it.” Now Peter is guilt-stricken over the thought that he might have been as bad a father to Nicholas as Anthony was to him, repeating the old man’s mistakes by choosing to leave Kate for a younger woman and forcing Nicholas to fend for himself with his feelings of abandonment. In this way the title of “The Son” can be seen as fitting, though not in quite the same way as those of the previous two plays in Zeller’s canon: Peter is the abandoned son who has become, in his eyes, a failed father to his own boy.
The film is handsomely produced, with a sleek production design by Simon Bowles and crisp cinematography by Ben Smithard that give the visuals a slightly antiseptic feel, apt editing by Yorgos Lamprinos and a suitably morose score by Hans Zimmer.
But professional sheen is no compensation for a failure to connect viscerally with the viewer. One might compare “The Son” to two films from 2018 that in some ways share its themes. One was “Ben’s Back,” in which a drug addict son returns home to seek his mother’s help, and the other “Beautiful Boy,” in which a father vainly struggles to save his son, who’s succumbing to addiction. Each had problems, but in both the young actor playing the troubled son (Lucas Hedges in the first, Timothée Chalamet in the second) made a stronger impression than McGrath does. Here despite committed work from Dern and Kirby, and in that shattering single scene from Hopkins, McGrath’s pallid presence means that Jackman must largely carry things by himself, and while he gives what’s probably his best performance since “Prisoners,” it’s not enough. This is ultimately a film that’s intended to be lacerating but instead just comes across as familiarly, and rather tepidly, melodramatic.