I watched the opening minutes of The Father with a sense of indifference. Anthony Hopkins plays Anthony, an 80-year-old with significant signs of dementia. His divorced daughter Anne (Olivia Colman) informs him that she's met a new man and will be moving to Paris. That means she won't be around to provide care, so he'll likely have to go to a personal care facility. He doesn't take kindly to this idea. From all appearances, the movie was set to become a tear-jerker about a senior citizen rapidly forgetting his loved ones. Then it pulled the rug out from under me.
A short time later, Anthony is visited by Anne's husband Paul (Mark Gattis), who informs him that 1.) he and Anne are not divorced; and 2.) she is most definitely not moving to Paris with some other guy. Then Anne comes home, now played by actress Olivia Williams. A couple scenes later, Olivia Colman is back in the role and Paul is being played by Rufus Sewell. Switching of this sort occurs throughout. There's also a young woman named Laura (Imogen Poots) who wanders in periodically. She may or may not be a in-home health worker.
You can likely see what The Father is doing. Rather than taking a predictable, straightforward approach to the subject of dementia, it intentionally gives viewers the exact same sense of confusion Anthony feels. Telling who's who is difficult, as is determining which plot events are factual and which aren't. Writer/director Florian Zeller is shrewd in taking that approach, as it prevents the movie from becoming a typical “disease drama.” Over the course of ninety-seven minutes, we come to understand in some admittedly small way the disorientation that Anthony experiences.
Hopkins gives another career highlight performance. Through his efforts, we never pity his character. We do empathize with him, because the actor shows that there's still a lot of joy inside. Anthony may get confused, and he may get irrationally angry at times, but he's often quick to make a joke or break out a dance step. Portraying someone with a disease like Alzheimer's is always risky for a performer because it's easy to get so bogged down in playing the symptoms that the character itself can get lost. Hopkins plays a man first and foremost, to the film's great benefit. He's well-matched by Colman, who brings a great deal of emotional realism to her role. The hurt Anne feels watching her dad decline is palpable.
The Father doesn't really have a story. Mostly it shows the trajectory of Anthony's life at this critical juncture. For that reason, I felt like the film was treading water after an hour, going over things that had already been made clear. Superb work from Hopkins and Colman, in particular, kept me sufficiently engaged, though. Viewers with loved ones going through – or having already gone through – dementia will find the movie difficult viewing. Whether it hits close to home or not, the ability to provide some enlightenment on the subject is valuable.
out of four
The Father is rated PG-13 for some strong language, and thematic material. The running time is 1 hour and 37 minutes.