Starring Anthony Hopkins, Olivia Colman, Mark Gatiss, Imogen Poots, Rufus Sewell, Olivia Williams
Screenplay by Florian Zeller and Christopher Hampton
Based on “Le Pere” by Florian Zeller
Directed by Florian Zeller
Produced by David Parfitt, Jean-Louis Livi, Philippe Carcassonne, Christophe Spadone, Simon Friend
Cinematography by Ben Smithard
Edited by Yorgos Lamprinos
Music by Ludovico Einaudi
By Matt Neufeld
Bravo to Anthony Hopkins for a bravura performance as an older man losing his mind, his sense of time and place, his grip on reality and his dignity as the ravages of time tear away at his mental abilities, his heart, his soul and his very being in “The Father,” a gripping, tragic examination of the downside of growing old that is at once bleakly captivating, terribly depressing, horribly insightful and still wholly important and relevant in terms of the societal issue of an aging population and what to do when older folks can no longer care for themselves.
Hopkins anchors this tragic drama in a consistently stellar manner, delivering a performance that brings the viewer straight in to the withering, deteriorating and slowly dying mind of a most dignified man who is indeed losing that dignity in an agonizing way week by week, day by day. Hopkins’ performance is heartbreaking, difficult to watch, shocking in its honesty and technical brilliance, and yet always, somehow, completely watchable, entertaining in a difficult way, and soulfully sympathetic. One can’t help but care for this poor man who is suffering from senility, Alzheimer’s and/or dementia–it’s never quite clearly explained what his character is specifically suffering from–and the viewer is drawn to Hopkins’ character and performance from start to finish. And Hopkins is in nearly every scene, holding the screen, the moment, the character, the performance–and the movie–firmly in his solid thespian grasp. It’s an acting performance for the ages, for the aged, and for the aging, puns fully intended, but not meant to be cute or funny.
That’s because “The Father” is about the effects of aging on a person’s mind–and heart and soul, as noted–and the concurrent effects of what happens not only to the person suffering, but to all of those around him and, eventually, society at large. Hopkins’ character in the film, known only as Anthony, is a proud, dignified, successful, educated, well-liked engineer with two daughters, living a comfortable life in a beautiful, spacious apartment. However, in his senior years, Anthony starts to suffer from dementia and all that he knows seems to slowly start to drift away from him–his sense of time and place, his grasp on basic facts, his awareness of the most simple aspects of his life. Anthony simply cannot remember where his beloved watch is, why people are in his apartment, where one of his daughters is, and, eventually, where he is living and just what is going on in his slowly and irritatingly confusing and bewildering life.
Anthony is, again, simply losing his mental abilities to dementia, and director and co-writer Florian Zeller, who is adapting his own stage play, “Le Pere,” (the father, in French), uses a most clever, if not brilliant, narrative device, structure and script to take the viewer straight into that deteriorating mind. Zeller writes and directs the movie in manner in which the viewer simply has no idea much of the time just what on earth is going on. Which is exactly the horrific state of mind that Anthony is agonizingly experiencing. As the viewer watches the movie, the scenes, times, places, locations, people, characters and situations change, morph, melt and disappear into one another–often confusingly so–creating a terribly confusing, confounding and claustrophobic atmosphere of increasingly insufferable maddening madness. It’s just not clear from scene to scene just what is going on, what is real, what is imagined, what is factual, what is delusional, what is perceived and, sadly, what is reality. That sense of confusion by the viewer is obviously exactly what poor Anthony is experiencing as the dementia takes over his ever-increasingly confusing world, and the filmic experience of going through Anthony’s troubles right there with him, as if the viewer is right there inside Anthony’s mind, is just breathtakingly original, inventive, nightmarish–and wholly impressive on all writing, script, story and directing levels.
Zeller handles all of this without the movie appearing as a simple gimmick or trick–because it’s not a simple gimmick or trick. Zeller’s deft handling of his script, co-written with Christopher Hampton, and his direction keeps the film serious, interesting and fascinating in its layers of puzzles and riddles of the mind, and the end result is respectful, honorable and intelligent. And strangely entertaining, too, although on a somewhat depressing level–only because the main theme and subject is inherently depressing. But “The Father” still works as a strong, excellent, important film. Too often, movies about older folks suffering from senility, dementia or Alzheimer’s take us too far away from the main character suffering from his or her affliction, or, if the film does stay close to the victim, we often are frustrated that we can’t completely see or feel just what the person is going through. “The Father” leaps over all of these pitfalls in huge bounds, overcoming any previous problems with similar stories and characters in prior films with the same subject matter and succeeding, again, in bringing the viewer so far into Anthony’s troubled mind, it may take viewers a while to shake the movie after it’s over. And that’s nothing but a good thing–because, of course, all of us need to think long and hard about the problem of what do with older folks when their reality starts to sadly slip away.
In 2021, the world is seeing the oldest members of the Baby Boomer generation–which is defined as those born between 1946 and 1964–reaching the age of 75. Think about that–the oldest members of the Baby Boomer generation are 75 years old in 2021! That’s amazing, considering that there are an estimated 73 million Baby Boomers, as of 2019. And think about this–in just nine years, in 2030, all Baby Boomers will be at least 65 years old. Unbelievable. Add to that even more Baby Boomer parents living longer, into their 80s and 90s, and the United States has a huge aging population. There’s nothing wrong with that on the surface, of course–the human race is constantly waging a war against death to keep everyone living longer and it’s nice to see folks living longer and healthier, of course–but there is, alas, a huge downsize to all of this, too, and that is the problem of just what to do with many of the aging population who are suffering from senility, dementia and Alzheimer’s and who, increasingly, cannot adequately take care of themselves any longer.
And this very basic yet very complicated societal issue lies at the heart of “The Father.” Anthony’s caring daughter, Anne, beautifully and devastatingly portrayed by Olivia Colman as a steady, emotional and caring daughter, yet a daughter who is also understandably increasingly stressed-out and conflicted about just what to do about her ailing father, represents and symbolizes the side of society that is tasked with dealing with their increasingly dependent elders. Anne wants to do the right thing, she wants to help her father, she cares for and loves her father, but she must also somehow balance the care of her father with her own life, which is concurrently suffering from caring for her increasingly difficult-to-care-for father. Just what does one do with a parent who is losing their grip on reality and who, bit by bit, can’t fully function, can’t remember where they are and what is going on, and, often, confuses reality with delusions? How does one balance their own life–work, kids, relationships, finances, their own mental and physical health–with the difficulties of caring for an ailing elderly parent?
There are no easy answers, in films or in life, for this very real, very terrible, very debilitating dilemma. And this is clearly shown in “The Father” through Anne’s own difficulties in life as she deals with her father. She tries everything she can to care for and take care of her father–easy, soft, caring and non-confrontational conversations, keeping life simple, staying close by him as often as she can, hiring in-home caretakers, and more. But, as in real life, it seems like nothing is working, and the increasing dread that viewers start to feel while watching “The Father” slowly starts to sink in within their own minds as the film progresses, cleanly echoing what those millions of Boomers are also thinking in real life: Just what am we going to do with those elderly seniors who cannot take care of themselves anymore? That sense of real-life dread is expertly presented, in a most understated manner, toward the end of “The Father,” as Anne appears to run out of options and she must do what needs to be done to take care of her father. Which often means having the parent live with a 24-hour caretaker, live in an assisted-living facility, live in a nursing home, live in a retirement community, or live in some other type of home for the elderly. And is that, really, how any of us want to life out our senior years in life? No, it isn’t–not at all, no way.
Every Boomer–and every other person in any other generation who has parents or grandparents who are ailing and suffering from age-related senility, dementia or Alzheimer’s, will see themselves and their relatives clearly in “The Father.” And while that may be difficult to watch, Zeller, as noted, does present a caring, loving, sympathetic insight into this issue in the film. And while viewers may be saddened watching Anthony’s (the character) descent into darkness and confusion, the viewer also deeply cares for and about Anthony, and Anne, and what happens to them. Thus, Zeller takes everyone along on this journey, and we all experience the same communal emotions, making the overriding issue arrive close to home, appear very real, and still remain caring and sympathetic.
Hopkins assuredly deserves all of the praise he is getting for this amazing, impressive performance. And so do Colman and Zeller. And the rest of the cast and crew. They have all created an intelligent, insightful, emotional experience with “The Father” and they are to be highly praised.
At the same time, again, we have to think about the issue of what to do with our elders who are suffering mentally-challenging medical ailments. Part of the problem with this issue that needs to be addressed is the horrendous trend of warehousing–that’s a rough-edged term, but that’s what it is–our elders in rip-off, scammy, slimy and corrupt institutions, hospitals, nursing homes, assisted living facilities and retirement communities that, often, do nothing but cram these poor folks into tiny sets of rooms in depressing hallways of depressing buildings in depressing surroundings, which often does absolutely nothing to help our elders in the most productive, helpful ways. And we need to stop building and encouraging and accepting these over-priced, horrific scam facilities and communities that charge outrageously expensive and rip-off prices to simply house older folks. And often, these rip-off scam communities charge outrageously expensive charges that are so far out-of-reach for the average person, the only way that people can pay for these con-job nightmares is to sell their homes and use all of their life equity savings just to live out their lives in peace at these sterile places. As many people have noted–including medical, mental health and social service officials at city, county, state and federal levels–this is often nothing but a scam.
This rip-off opportunist advantage-taking of our elderly members of society has to stop. In-home care; keeping seniors in group homes with others in close proximity; making nursing homes and sane, more down-to-earth retirement communities affordable–realistically, appropriately affordable; encouraging more elderly folks to actually continue to live at home or in homes with caretakers, getting away from plastic, horrible, nightmarish institutions, facilities, communities and too-small apartments that resemble nothing more than hospital rooms or prison cells; and developing other more humane, affordable and sympathetic options are just several of the options that officials are moving to implement, instead of just warehousing, shutting out and institutionalizing people in horrendous ways. Society has to find the right answers for people like Anthony in “The Father”–and for the millions of real-life people like Anthony who are experiencing the same mental health issues as Anthony.
In the end, all of this is what the movie “The Father” is all about, and kudos must go out to Hopkins, Zeller and Colman for taking on and tackling this difficult issue with such compassion, emotion, care, gentleness, insight and heart.
We all want to live forever–but we all also want to live comfortably and in the best environment if some of our mental and physical abilities start to diminish. We need to find a humane and human way to take care of the Anthonys of the world, because they are indeed our fathers and our mothers–and our siblings, friends, relatives, acquaintances, neighbors and grandparents, too.
“The Father” as a film, overall; Zeller’s clever approach to this subject and film through his inventive narrative and directing structure; and Hopkins’ and Colman’s performances will stay with you long after the movie ends, and that’s a good thing. Hopefully, what stays with us after watching “The Father” will spark discussions about how to properly handle our fragile elders and just what to do with our less fortunate elders in society, and, who knows, perhaps those discussion will lead to some helpful and hopeful answers to these difficult questions in life. As we all continue to live longer and as our population continues to increase, this is a problem that is increasingly, literally, nothing less than a matter of life and death for all of us on this planet.
Age, as it turns out, is indeed far, far more than just a number.