Review: The Father (2020)

Director: Florian Zeller
Screenwriters: Christopher Hampton, Florian Zeller
Starring: Anthony Hopkins, Olivia Colman, Olivia Williams, Mark Gatiss, Imogen Poots
Genre: Drama
MPAA Rating: Rated PG-13 for some strong language, and thematic material
Release Dates: 2/26/21 (Theatres); 3/25/21 (VOD)
Runtime: 1h 37min
Rotten Tomatoes Score: 98%
Where to Watch: Rent/Buy
Oscar Nomination(s): Best Picture, Actor (Hopkins), Supporting Actress (Colman), Adapted Screenplay, Editing, Production Design

The Father is the last of this year’s Best Picture nominees that I’ve seen; unfortunately, it wasn’t released until last month, and only became available to rent until a couple weeks ago. You may wonder if it’s worth $20 to rent, and it certainly is, especially if you consider how much it would cost for 2+ people to go to the movies, get popcorn, etc. I watched it with my mom, and even though we had to pause multiple times — and watch over two days — I still found The Father to be an extremely effective, sympathetic, authentic portrait of living with dementia.

The Father is based on the play by Florian Zeller, who directed and co-write (with Christopher Hampton) the adaptation. The main character was portrayed on Broadway by Frank Langella, who won a Tony for the role, and the play overall has received plenty of acclaim. But, as is the case for other play-to-film adaptations, how does this one translated? I have not seen the play, but debut director Zeller somehow made the material extremely cinematic, despite — or perhaps in spite of — the brief running time and relatively constrictive scenes. It’s so brilliant made that it’s hard to believe it’s Zeller’s first film, and he utilizes some fascinating directorial techniques that you might not typically see from a newbie. 

It’s best to know as little as possible about the film, as it’s meant to be entirely disorienting and hard to follow; Zeller’s aim is, clearly, to make the viewer as confused as Anthony Hopkin’s main character, also named Anthony (Zeller supposedly wrote the part for Hopkins). And, even at the end, you still don’t know what’s real and what isn’t. Zeller manages to put you inside the mindset of an individual with severe dementia; he doesn’t always recognize people (including his own family), he doesn’t understand where he is or what he’s doing, and he tends to see events out of order. It’s the most sympathetic, authentic portrait of dementia/Alzheimer’s that I’ve ever seen; that’s not a knock on against others, such as Still Alice (which finally won Julianne Moore an Oscar), although those show how others view the person with dementia/Alzheimer’s, rather than how that person views him/herself and the world. 

In case you were wondering, yes, the performances are superb, particularly from Hopkins and Olivia Colman, whose work here is perhaps even better than their Oscar-winning roles in The Silence of the Lambs and The Favourite. And, unfortunately, neither will probably win Oscars, but at least they have both been nominated this year. Hopkins gives such a devastating, complex performance that truly sticks with you; prior to watching the film, I would’ve given Riz Ahmed the Oscar for his terrific work in Sound of Metal. But, now, I’d handily give it to Hopkins, who fully embodies the mindset, physicality, and temperament of someone with dementia. It’s somewhat unfortunate that Chadwick Boseman — a late, great, actor — has been steamrolling the awards season for his [arguably great] work in Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom. Hopkins really blew me away here, and it’ll be a shame for him to not win any major awards this season (there’s still hope for him at BAFTA, though). 

Colman is also excellent, of course. It’s a much more restrained performance than what she gave in The Favourite, and one that is perhaps even more effective. She does a lot of internal acting, which is not easy task, especially considering the high level of emotion we see from Hopkins. Even though we’re still unclear as to who her character is, she conveys it all beautifully. She’s assisted by the rest of the strong supporting cast: Imogen Poots, Olivia Williams, Mark Gatiss, and Rufu Sewell are all great and all get their chances to shine. 

I must also shout out the terrific production design and editing, which are integral aspects of the film and set the tone. We some of the same scenes and moments repeated, from different angles/perspectives, which helps to display Anthony’s continual confusion. The production design, too, is important, as the camera lingers on certain rooms, furniture, and decorations, showing how things are changing and how Anthony never really knows where he is. It’s not the type of flashy set design that we normally see nominated for the Oscars, so I was pleasantly surprised to see it included this year. 

Of course, the most important part of the film is how much you’ll sympathize with individuals suffering from dementia, which is clearly a terrifying thing for them and for the people who love and take care of them. I, for one, understood my paternal grandmother a bit better; her dementia is not nearly that severe [yet], but she does things similar to Anthony, such as often asking about her watch and not already remembering who certain people are. It’s sad, to be sure, but I hope The Father can shed some light on dementia, which is fairly common.