The Father movie review: the quiet horror of Alzheimer’s

MaryAnn’s quick take: A deeply compassionate, deeply unnerving portrait of a man suffering from dementia and losing his grip on reality. The empathy machine of cinema has rarely been put to such uncomfortably intimate use.
I’m “biast” (pro): love the cast
I’m “biast” (con): nothing
(what is this about? see my critic’s minifesto)

There have been some harrowing cinematic depictions of Alzheimer’s disease in recent years — What They Had, documentary Glen Campbell: I’ll Be Me, and Still Alice most memorable — but none of them have wielded the quiet horror of The Father. This is a deeply compassionate but also a deeply unnerving portrait of a man slowly losing his grip on reality, and we are so firmly entrenched in his perspective that his confusion and despair becomes our own.

Anthony (Anthony Hopkins [Thor: Ragnarok, Noah], now Oscar- and BAFTA-nominated for this performance, and rightly so) just wants to remain living in his own flat, a lovely, spacious apartment in the elegant London neighborhood of Kensington. But his daughter, Anne (Olivia Colman: Murder on the Orient Express, London Road), who looks after him, is planning a move to Paris, and would like to see her father settled in a care home — a very nice place, honestly — now that he’s become so forgetful; he really shouldn’t be on his own. Or is she moving to Paris at all? Anne certainly told Anthony she was, but now she’s denying it. Why is Anne lying? Who is this other woman (Olivia Williams: Victoria & Abdul, The White King) who says she is Anne? Why are two different men (Mark Gatiss [Locked Down, Doctor Who] and Rufus Sewell [The Man in the High Castle, Gods of Egypt]) claiming to be Paul, Anne’s husband? Is this some sort of elaborate trick to drive him crazy and get him to give up his home, which certainly is an enviable piece of real estate? What the hell is going on?

The Father Rufus Sewell
Who is this man, and what is he doing in Anthony’s flat?

Sadly, we know exactly what is going on, and it’s not that anyone is gaslighting Anthony or playing nasty games with him. Except his brain, that is. Past and present are getting jumbled together; faces are disappearing from his memory; and worst of all, he doesn’t even seem to realize what is happening. The effect on him is so terrifying and so unsettling, however, that the fact that he doesn’t understand his decline is far from a blessing in disguise. Anthony is living in an eternal, endless Now, one in which he can trust no one. The aching pathos of his situation is almost unbearable.

This first English-language film from French director Florian Zeller is adapted — with an assist from screenwriter Christopher Hampton (Atonement) — from Zeller’s own stage play, though this is such a masterful work of cinema that it’s tough to see how it could have worked half so well on the stage. The marvelous editing — by Yorgos Lamprinos (Custody, “Just Before Losing Everything”), also Oscar- and BAFTA-nominated — shifts the physical parameters of Anthony’s world in an instant, and as such is absolutely essential for immersing us in Anthony’s mind, for making us live his paranoia and his fear. The closeness of the camera — the cinematography is by Ben Smithard (Downton Abbey, The Man Who Invented Christmas) — engulfs us in the bafflement and the rage on Hopkins’s face in a way that we would never have sitting far back in a theater audience. The empathy machine of cinema has rarely been put to such uncomfortably intimate use.

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