What do you do with the people you love when they no longer know who they are? Writer/director Florian Zeller's film adaptation of his 2012 stage production, The Father, attempts to find solace in the answers to this question. What's so striking about this feature directorial debut though is not how assured it seems (which it absolutely does), but more how well-balanced and complete it is despite the narrative and its origins suggesting a rather small, narrow window through which the material might view the world. The confined setting certainly gives way to the roots of the piece, but there is also something distinctly cinematic to the film as if Zeller was intent to not simply exercise his skills as a first time filmmaker, but justify why this piece of writing was worth being adapted to the screen (one possible reason for this being this is actually the second time Zeller's work has been adapted after the 2015 French film, Florida). This is almost laughable though, as the structure and quality of writing alone make Zeller's work more than worthy of being told time and time again. That said, it's not simply the insight garnered through the elegant prose, but more it's how Zeller is able to both take the viewer inside the mind of an individual experiencing the aggressive progressions of dementia as well as simultaneously lend awareness and understanding to the roles closely associated with this disease and how those who must go through this experience with a loved one are equally impacted by it. 

Needless to say, Zeller is a master storyteller and in his directorial debut (I keep repeating it because I can't believe it) he carefully - and probably meticulously, as re-watches will undoubtedly assure - creates this ever-shifting and insular world in which Anthony Hopkins' Anthony is trapped. The awareness of every facet of his film is what creates this environment for which we, the audience, immediately buy into completely. Zeller has purposefully paired his protagonist with this somewhat stuffy yet still pristine London flat where the green of trees can be seen through the window, children can be heard running along the sidewalks outside, and classical compositions largely dominate the sound waves within the apartment. It's a context that feels familiar and thus the reality of it is without question, but as the severity of Anthony's diagnosis becomes more apparent it's clear Zeller is not simply conducting this film as a shared experience for the characters and the audience, but as a piece of art in which the audience willingly plays an active part; we're participating. As eye-rolling as that may sound, it becomes true the further one follows The Father down its path as the fundamental choices of the film not only invest the viewer in these people, but put us inside their heads and help us understand the fear and the confusion - among other things - constantly enveloping them. 

From left: Laura (Imogen Poots), Anne (Olivia Colman), and Anthony (Sir Anthony Hopkins) in Florian Zeller's The Father.
© 2020 - Sony Pictures Classics 

It's not so much that Zeller uses expectation as a tool to then upend them for the sake of surprise, but more that the family drama that The Father begins as is staged as such for the sake of familiarity before delving into the more psychological horrors of dementia; further immersing the audience in the deceptive mind of our main character. Analyzing this as some type of metaphor Zeller has constructed on the formality and constant rigor of the mannerly European drama is one way to read the director's intent, but while the option of adapting his own work for the screen would certainly open up further room to explore larger themes and ideas it would seem Zeller simply wanted to make his film as authentic and real as possible. This authenticity is evident in all aspects of the work, but what's more interesting is how Zeller uses the audience's acceptance of his reality because of its seeming authenticity only to then contradict that a moment later. And then do it again and again. It is a technique that is certainly startling the first few times it is executed and made even more shocking time and again by the way in which these contradictions come to light or reveal themselves to be a new version of Anthony's perceived truth. Naturally, this is how Zeller enlists the viewer in the experience and makes it a shared one, but it is the effectiveness of the bit that is disarming and intuitive. The key to a meaningful life seems to lie in the ability to keep as much balanced as possible - be it literally and psychologically - so it comes as no surprise that everything in Zeller's film feels as if it can trace its roots back to that trait as well. Whether it be from a character perspective as Hopkins' Anthony struggles to keep his own disposition in check, Olivia Colman's Anne who is doing her best to both uphold the responsibility she feels to her father as well as continuing to live her own life, and of course the film itself where Zeller has to keep the profundity of the subject matter as meaningful as the aforementioned technique. The greatest of Zeller's strengths as a storyteller coming via the maze of possible realities he introduces that never become trite or derivative of one another, but instead consistently ups the ante while adding new if not several layers to the narrative not all of which make sense or will add up completely, but that deepen the impact nonetheless.   

Of course, one cannot talk about authenticity without discussing the performances from Hopkins as well as Colman who plays Anthony's daughter and primary caretaker, Anne. Hopkins is of course at the center of the film as the titular father and the legendary actor, whose credits over the last five years include a Thor film, a Transformers movie, and The Two Popes along with Westworld, commits fully to this most complex of roles. At eighty-three, the actor still effortlessly weaves between his smooth charm and cunning nastiness as the character of Anthony can run as hostile as he can relaxed. Upon our first meeting with him, Anne has just arrived at Anthony's flat where she is responding to accusations from his previous in-home caregiver that her father not only accosted her verbally but attempted to abuse her physically. Anthony laughs such allegations off as if he couldn't even be capable of as much, but given the temperature of his temperament in this opening scene alone Hopkins makes it evident Anthony isn't completely sure of what he's capable of these days much less what the reality of his situation is. The layers of Anthony's life as it was come to present themselves in varied iterations throughout the film whether it be in a new interviewee for the caretaker position as played by Imogen Poots whom Anthony can't stop going on about how much she looks like his younger daughter or Anne's husband or maybe...ex-husband? It's not clear what the truth is, but that's not the important part. In one scene Rufus Sewell will present himself as Paul, Anne's boorish husband who we can understand why she would have ultimately come to divorce should that be the truth of the situation while other times Paul is embodied by Mark Gatiss who possesses a slightly more generous veneer. Which of these men and when Anne's husband were actually a part of Anthony's life is uncertain as, beyond her responding to the latest dispute between her father and his caretaker in that opening scene, Anne also breaks the news that she will be leaving for Paris as she has met a man and fallen in love with him. Colman is immediately empathetic as Anne given her dedication to her father despite her frequently being the target of his mood swings. Having to play such a range of emotions from vulnerability to sadness to frustration, Colman captures the poignancy and the humanity of each interaction no matter the state of mind her father challenges her with. It's a perfectly pitched pair of performances so in tune with the brilliantly written screenplay that it bears the hallmark of any exceptional piece of acting in that after having experienced the film it's impossible to imagine anyone else in these roles.         

Anthony Hopkins is a man trying to make sense of his constantly changing circumstances in this adaptation of Zeller's original stage production.
© 2020 - Sony Pictures Classics 

The Father
, beyond being emotionally urgent and again - painstakingly insightful - also simply feels rather ingenious not only for the way in which it is told, but for how Zeller seemed to know this method would affect the audience. It intensifies our compassion for the character, but at a base-level it makes us more understanding human beings. While having never personally seen the original stage production, it seemed safe to assume the narrative was the same yet it was clear Zeller and co-writer Christopher Hampton, who has adapted such works as Dangerous Liaisons, The Quiet American, and Atonement, had somehow managed to make the story feel more cinematic in this film. Not an easy thing to do, mind you, as this is still very much two characters dealing with one another in a confined space. Zeller uses his single location to reinforce Anthony's disorientation while heavily relying on the editing of Yorgos Lamprinos to underscore that disorientation while more overtly accentuating the tone of our main character's personality and his response to these consistent feelings of confusion. Moreover, Lamprinos' editing accompanies Zeller's contradiction technique in such a way that it creates a rhythm to the film. There is a tempo to the proceedings that has been carefully quantified so that the pacing of this very specific technique does in fact work and doesn't become tired after the viewer picks up on the ruse and so it doesn't feel repetitive. The writing naturally helps in making the job of the editor not necessarily easier, but more gratifying to be sure yet it is the marriage of the two - how they rely on one another to enhance both elements - that gives way to this fully immersive experience that mirrors that of Anthony's. It is a thing of both beauty and tragedy, The Father for it is a beautifully constructed tale of what a tragedy life can become when there is no space in which to find comfort or peace. Moments undoubtedly often come for each of us when we realize there is no way of understanding everything there is to understand in this world while there is a certain amount of understanding and eventual solace in knowing one has to let those things go. Though it may not seem the character of Anthony has much of a choice in the matter as he doesn't necessarily understand how he's become what he's become or even recognize who he is there are small glimpses of alleviation where he is free of the illness because of his illness. For the audience witnessing this and for the countless viewers who have no doubt dealt with dementia in the lives of loved ones, it would seem Zeller - at the very least - has created a work that lends a hand by recognizing the isolation of such a journey and assuring everyone that no one is alone in these emotions.

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