The Father movie review: Anthony Hopkins puts viewers in the disoriented mind of a dementia-stricken dad

Prahlad Srihari
·5 min read

Cinema and memory function in much the same way. When we look back on a fond memory, it plays like a little movie in our head. Let's say you were six, and it's the first time you remember having ice cream. What you remember of the experience will be a lot richer in sensory and emotional detail, than the last. What you don't remember, your mind fills in the blanks, with a scoop of nostalgia on top. In reminiscing the past, you're reconstructing it. Cinema essentially simulates this process, meaning both are representations of reality, not reality itself.

By examining this intrinsic relationship between cinema and memory, Florian Zeller attempts something ambitious in his directorial debut. Based on his own French play, The Father places us in the disoriented mind of a man losing his memories to dementia. The camera becomes an extension of his mind's eye. Faces and places mix and match in an ever-shifting reality, where the only constant is the fallibility of memories. The truth exists between what he remembers and what he's forgotten. Selective of what they show us and what they don't, Zeller and his editor Yorgos Lamprinos construct a fragmented narrative that mimics the nature of fading memories. Rooted in the past rather than the present, it's a story more suited to screen than stage because of it.

Anthony Hopkins as Anthony
Anthony Hopkins as Anthony

Anthony Hopkins as Anthony

Embodied by Anthony Hopkins, the character and the actor become one. Not just because the ageing father at the centre of the movie is also named Anthony. Progressively losing his memories, his tether to reality and himself, Anthony must face his twilight years without the light that has guided him through his life. Dementia has thrown him into a "Groundhog Day" situation. Every day is familiar yet different, resembling and contradicting the events of yesterday. Hopkins invites the viewer to get inside Anthony's mind, grapple with his uncertainties, and uncover his truth for ourselves. The topography of an impaired consciousness manifests in the distant look in his eyes. He fleshes out a man who is not just a set of symptoms, but full of human faults and frailties.

Olivia Colman as Anne
Olivia Colman as Anne

Olivia Colman as Anne

Watching Anthony fade away in front of her eyes, his daughter Anne (Olivia Colman) grows more and more anxious as he stubbornly refuses her help. When we first meet her, she comes bearing some difficult news. She plans to move to Paris with her boyfriend. With her father having fired his last caregiver, she is left with little choice but to put him in a nursing home. In the next segment, Anthony finds a man (Mark Gatiss) he doesn't recognise in his living room. He claims to be Anne's husband. Soon, Anne returns. Only, she isn't played by Olivia Colman, but Olivia Williams. She brings different news altogether: she isn't moving to Paris, and Anthony isn't being moved to a nursing home, but he is getting a new caregiver the next day. Similar confusion ensues when this caregiver, Laura (Imogen Poots), resembles his other daughter Lucy, whom he even confesses in Anne's presence to be his favourite.

Faded memories cloud the past. The sequence of shots doesn't cohere, but confuse. Intentionally. Aligning the viewer's perspective with Anthony's disorientation affords better understanding of his mental deterioration. Each vivid recollection provides fresh context to the confusion. It helps us reconstruct his fractured self in a way he never can. For us, Colman is the anchor. Her character Anne allows us to orient ourselves within the film's deliberately disjointed narrative. She projects the quiet empathy of a daughter desperately struggling to hold the pieces of her father's memory and identity together. If Hopkins serves a scene-by-scene portrait of how the degenerative disease affects the patient, Colman and Poots explore its toll on carers.

To illustrate the crumbling architecture of fading memories, Zeller uses spatial disorientation to great effect through set design. The apartment is refurnished. The living room decor changes. So does the kitchen cabinetry. The painting above the fireplace appears and disappears. But the different recollections of the same episode appear to be staged in a single location: an apartment which acts as a prison of its occupants' delirium.

Zeller not only manipulates space, but also time through a non-linear narrative. The film, not unlike memories, links the past with the present. In the back and forth, Anthony finds time slipping, and this plays into why he obsesses over his watch. Ludovico Einaudi's score offers a sonic articulation of dementia's inexpressible agony. The wistful strings bring an emotional lucidity to the fog that consumes Anthony's mind.

Linking memory and time to identity has often served as a powerful storytelling tool. Think Mulholland Drive or Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind. But a film which more recently surveyed similar territory as The Father, albeit through a sci-fi lens with Jon Hamm holograms, was Marjorie Prime. A similar uneasy relationship between a dementia-stricken parent and anxious daughter informs Michael Almereyda's film, which is also based on a play (by Jordan Harrison). The daughter, played by Geena Davis, elaborates on a William James idea. "Memory is not like a well that you dip into or a filing cabinet. When you remember something, you remember the memory. You remember the last time you remembered it, not the source. So, it's always getting fuzzier, like a photocopy of a photocopy. It's never getting fresher or clearer. So even a very strong memory can be unreliable, because it's always in the process of dissolving." Zeller posits something not dissimilar in his own exploration into the mutability of memories in The Father. Memories are what make us who we are, and the only thing we leave behind. Cinema is the medium that brings them to life, projecting half-remembered experiences and fading figures from the mind to a dark room.

Rating: 4 (out of 5 stars)

The Father releases in Indian cinemas on 23 April.

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