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.