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The Father

****
2020

‘…immaculately crafted, outwardly dispassionate, and inwardly shattering…’

The late Sir Richard Attenborough invited me to help him out with a long radio interview for his final film; while we were on air, I helped prompt a memory that was beginning to fail in terms of details. His wonderful wife, Sheila, suffered from dementia, a condition feared by many as old age approaches. One name that always caused the actor/director great delight was Sir Anthony Hopkins, who worked with him on five films. Despite the subject matter, Dick would have no doubt have been delighted by Hopkins’ current success in The Father.

But that subject is difficult; the number of people I’ve known who have lost their later years to dementia is in double figures, and it’s not a topic that promises much in the way of entertainment. But the name of Christopher Hampton, here translating the play by director Florian Zeller, is a potent draw, suggesting that The Father would be a thoughtful depiction. Indeed, rather than duck the subject, The Father draws it out, not evading the confusions of Anthony (Hopkins, playing under his own name). but examining each world he inhabits in detail.

Anthony lives in a flat that he thinks is his own, and is concerned when his daughter (Olivia Coleman) tells him that she’s moving to Paris. Anthony sets off through the rooms of the cavernous flat to plot his survival, but slips into different time periods, all muddled up in his head and in the audience’s mind as well. The Father functions as a dementia simulator, putting the audience agonisingly in Anthony’s place as he seeks to make sense of who various intruders are. And it’s easy to see how Anthony might get the characters played by Rufus Sewell and Mark Gatiss mixed up; he remembers them saying the same hateful, painful things. And the girl that’s sent to help him, was that Imogen Poots or Olivia Williams? Conversations loop, or are left hanging, kind words do not placate and solace is never within reach.

The Father eventually unravels itself sufficiently for the viewer to read the situation clearly, even if poor Anthony can’t. By the time he’s found himself alone in a nursing home, we understand what’s happened to him, and the situation is all the more heartrending because Anthony is very much himself. He’s convivial with drinks, charming with ladies, yet unable to remember who he actually is. All the performers are on song, but Hopkins deserves every award going for his fearless, moving performance. He brings heart and soul to the film.

The Father might sound sentimental, or potentially exploitative, but it’s none of these things. It dismantles one of the punch-lines of our desire for longer lives; that the retirement that we might hope to enjoy isn’t necessarily waiting for us. Some obvious stabs at visual symbolism aside, Zeller’s film is immaculately crafted, outwardly dispassionate, and inwardly shattering; it’s a powerful film that’s sold on acting, but lives on in the mind by dint of its grace, humour and humanity.

Thanks to Lionsgate Awards for advanced acces to this title.

The Father is released in the UK on June 11th 2021.

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  1. I think I’m going to watch this movie. I remember AMOUR from Haneke. The real life of old people has not been a popular theme for cinema but for the last 10 years something is changing. They started to make movies about old people. This is good.

    • You nailed it. Amour is exactly the right film to compare this to. This is more stage in feel, but has more variety. It’s a hard sell, but worth the effort. Great comment!

  2. Finally caught up with this. Brilliant. Not just the mesmerising performance by Hopkins but the way the movie slipped in and out of his ever-shifting world. Far better than the stage play which I found unsettling rather than absorbing. The final scene is one of the greatest pieces of acting I have ever seen.

    • Wow, you’ve seen the stage-play! I can imagine it based on this, but suspect the film is more sophisticated.

  3. “Move to Paris? They don’t even speak English there!” will be forever burned into my skull because of this film.

    • I thought that was funny the first time, and was deliberately, agonizingly run into the ground as his bonhomie was exposed…good writing.

  4. I must confess, all I knew of this film was the bump of controversy when Hopkins got the Oscar for it. You make it sound like an interesting and tender movie. Funny how things get lost, eh wot? Will have to give it a watch.

    • It’s more than an acting workshop or a disease of the week movie. Smart and unsentimental, it’s essential viewing if the subject doesn’t put you off.

  5. The Father took me by surprise – I was expecting something sentimental and slightly self-worthy, but it had real depth and truthfulness to it. Hopkins was amazing (as everyone has said) but the script and direction also helped make it something special. Painful to watch at times, but wonderful cinema.

    Richard Attenborough was lovely. I met him as a young teen when he came to our school to do a filmed intervew – the questions were asked by an audience of schoolkids. The questions were pre-prepared, of course, and it seemed that I proposed the bulk of them, even though they were voiced by others. So after the filming, I was one fo the few pupils invited back to the staff room where they held a reception for him, teachers, and various important adults.

    There, he came straight to me and my friend, and seemed to enjoy that we were genuinely curious and enthusiastic. We got to ask him things that the filming didn’t have time for, and he competely shunned the dignatories, and his assistant who implored him to leave as he was late for his next engagement. He was absolutely brilliant with us, really engaging and interested.

    • The Father is top class cinema, and it’s a shame that the subject will reduce the audience. But that subject should be addressed, and while lots of films do badly by the issues they depict, Zeller and Hampton came up with something very affecting without reliance on sentiment. I guess revies have a responsibility to say that this is worth conquering any anxieties about and just seeing it.

      I’ve got a suitacse full of Attenborough stories, but your story rings absolutely true. He was very interested in young people, and seemed to derive energy from their enthusiasm, as he did yours. There’s a stadium-worth of people who he touched directly as a film-maker and inspiration, aside from his canon of films. He set a high bar, and expected others to do the same.

      • I could really believe it. The time he took to talk with me certainly left a lasting impression, and I imagine he was just as generous and inspiring many many others.

        As for The Father, I’ve also noticed a lot of potential viewers seem reluctant to watch it, suspecting it would be too depressing or emotionally challenging. I can respect that, particularly for people for whom the subject matter is a little too close to home, but I agree that its worth the investment. Maybe the current times mean most people are searching for escapism much more in the movies they watch (and of course that’s part of the magic of cinema), but there’s a place for films (and all art) that help us understand difficult and challenging issues. The Father is particularly good for that because it empathises and doesn’t trivialise its subject. It’s the kind of flm I imagine viewers could find truth in, and for a helpful reflection of their own concerns.

    • I can see the logic of that. I had the luxury of watching at home, but sniveling in the toilets is never a good look. Getting past the triggers is part of what a film like this has to do, but it’s still very affecting.

    • I can’t argue with that. It’s agonising. But it’s also a touching and thoughtful film, and can be commended to those who can handle the subject.

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