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In 'The Father,' Anthony Hopkins' Mind Is Playing Tricks On Him — And On You

Mar 18, 2021
Originally published on March 19, 2021 12:42 pm

There have been many fine films over the past several years about characters struggling with the onset of Alzheimer's disease and dementia, like Away From Her, Still Alice and the recent Colin Firth/Stanley Tucci drama Supernova. But few of them have gone as deeply and unnervingly into the recesses of a deteriorating mind as The Father, a powerful new chamber drama built around a mesmerizing lead performance from Anthony Hopkins.

At this point in his long career, Hopkins would seem to have exhausted his ability to surprise us, but his work here is nothing short of astonishing. He shows us a man whose mind has become a prison, and we're trapped in it right alongside him.

His character, also named Anthony, is 80 years old and has dementia. At the beginning of the movie, his daughter, Anne — played by the superb Olivia Colman — stops by his London apartment to check on him. Her father's condition has taken a turn for the worse, and his fits of temper have become severe enough to send his latest live-in nurse packing.

Anthony is stubborn and defiant and insists that he can manage on his own. But that's clearly not the case, given his habit of misplacing his things, like the watch that keeps mysteriously vanishing from his wrist, and his inability to remember names and faces, Anne's included.

As The Father goes on, the more it becomes clear that it's his own mind that's playing tricks on him. What makes the movie so unsettling is the way it wires us directly into his subjective experience, so that the foundations of the story seem to shift at random from scene to scene. We're adrift in a sea of Anthony's memories; each new plot development undermines the one before it.

A man suddenly appears in the apartment, claiming to be Anne's husband, which is odd, since just a few moments earlier, Anne seemed to be single. Anne goes out shopping for groceries, but when she returns, she's played not by Olivia Colman but by another actress, Olivia Williams.

The apartment itself, brilliantly designed by Peter Francis, begins to shift of its own accord. You notice puzzling discrepancies — wasn't there a lamp on that hallway table just a moment ago? Weren't those kitchen cabinets a completely different color? — and suddenly realize that Anthony's mind is blurring different time frames together. At some point, it becomes unclear whether we're in Anthony's apartment or Anne's apartment, into which Anthony has been moved since he can no longer live on his own.

The Father is thus both a psychological detective story and a stealth haunted-house movie. It's an exceedingly clever and polished piece of filmmaking, and it marks an impressive feature debut for the French writer-director Florian Zeller, adapting his own popular play with the veteran screenwriter Christopher Hampton.

You can sense how well this material must have worked on stage, where it's easier to slip between layers of reality. But it works beautifully onscreen, too. The general complaint about most stage-to-screen adaptations is that they wind up feeling too airless and claustrophobic. But those qualities are if anything a bonus in The Father, deepening its portrait of cognitive entrapment.

Remarkably, none of the movie's dazzling surface tricks undermine the emotion at its core. The story in The Father may be scrambled, but it's also heartbreakingly simple: A man grows old and loses his memory, and his daughter, after a lifetime of love and devotion, must begin the long, agonizing process of saying goodbye.

Hopkins could deliver this performance on an empty soundstage with no loss of impact. He shows us Anthony's struggle to keep his wits about him, the way he reaches for humor — and then anger — as a means of keeping the inevitable at bay. By the end, though, his every last defense has been stripped away, and Hopkins lays the character bare with a vulnerability I've rarely seen from him or any actor. It's a devastating performance — and an impossible one to forget.

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DAVE DAVIES, BYLINE: This is FRESH AIR. The new movie "The Father" received six Oscar nominations this week, including Best Picture and Best Actor for Anthony Hopkins' lead performance as a man struggling with the onset of dementia. The film was directed and adapted by Florian Zeller from his own stage play. Our film critic Justin Chang has this review.

JUSTIN CHANG, BYLINE: There have been many fine films over the past several years about characters struggling with the onset of Alzheimer's disease and dementia like "Away From Her," "Still Alice" and the recent Colin Firth-Stanley Tucci drama "Supernova." But few of them have gone as deeply and unnervingly into the recesses of a deteriorating mind as "The Father," a powerful new chamber drama built around a mesmerizingly performance from Anthony Hopkins. At this point in his long career, Hopkins would seem to have exhausted his ability to surprise us, but his work here is nothing short of astonishing. He shows us a man whose mind has become a prison, and we're trapped in it right alongside him. His character, also named Anthony, is 80 years old and has dementia.

At the beginning of the movie, his daughter Anne, played by the superb Olivia Colman, stops by his London apartment to check on him. Her father's condition has taken a turn for the worse. And his fits of temper have become severe enough to send his latest live-in nurse packing. Anthony is stubborn and defiant and insists that he can manage on his own. But that's clearly not the case, given his habit of misplacing his things like the watch that keeps mysteriously vanishing from his wrist and his inability to remember names and faces, Anne's included. Anne soon hires a young nurse named Laura, played by Imogen Poots, who comes to the apartment to meet Anthony. The two seem to hit it off at first, laughing and joking while Anne nervously looks on.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "THE FATHER")

IMOGEN POOTS: (As Laura) What did you do for a living?

ANTHONY HOPKINS: (As Anthony) Oh, I was a dancer.

POOTS: (As Laura) Were you?

HOPKINS: (As Anthony) Yes.

OLIVIA COLMAN: (As Anne) Dad.

HOPKINS: (As Anthony) What?

COLMAN: (As Anne) You were an engineer.

HOPKINS: (As Anthony) What do you know about it? Yes, tap dancing was my specialty.

POOTS: (As Laura) Really?

HOPKINS: (As Anthony) You seem surprised.

POOTS: (As Laura) Yeah, a little bit.

HOPKINS: (As Anthony) Why - don't you believe me? You find that difficult to imagine?

POOTS: (As Laura) Of course. It's just I've always loved tap dancing.

HOPKINS: (As Anthony) You, really? Wow. I'm still great at it. I'll show you.

(SOUNDBITE OF TAP DANCING)

HOPKINS: (As Anthony) Jolly good. Why are you laughing?

POOTS: (As Laura, laughing) Sorry. Sorry.

HOPKINS: (As Anthony) I know. I know who she reminds me of.

COLMAN: (As Anne) Who?

HOPKINS: (As Anthony) It's Lucy, Lucy when she was younger.

COLMAN: (As Anne) Lucy?

HOPKINS: (As Anthony) Yeah, my other daughter. That's right. There's a resemblance, don't you think?

COLMAN: (As Anne) Maybe.

HOPKINS: (As Anthony) Yes. Yes, her unbearable habit of laughing inanely. I had you there, didn't I?

CHANG: Anthony may think he's pulled a fast one on Laura, but the more "The Father" goes on, the more it becomes clear that it's his own mind that's playing tricks on him. What makes the movie so unsettling is the way it wires us directly into his subjective experience so that the foundations of the story seem to shift at random from scene to scene. We're adrift in a sea of Anthony's memories. Each new plot development undermines the one before it. A man suddenly appears in the apartment, claiming to be Anne's husband, which is odd since just a few moments earlier, Anne seemed to be single. Anne goes out shopping for groceries. But when she returns, she's played not by Olivia Colman, but by another actress, Olivia Williams.

The apartment itself, brilliantly designed by Peter Francis, begins to shift of its own accord. You notice puzzling discrepancies. Wasn't there a lamp on that hallway table just a moment ago? Weren't those kitchen cabinets a completely different color? And suddenly realize that Anthony's mind is blurring different time frames together. At some point, it becomes unclear whether we're in Anthony's apartment or Anne's apartment, into which Anthony has been moved since he can no longer live on his own.

"The Father" is thus both a psychological detective story and a stealth haunted house movie. It's an exceedingly clever and polished piece of filmmaking, and it marks an impressive feature debut for the French writer-director Florian Zeller, adapting his own popular play with the veteran screenwriter Christopher Hampton. You can sense how well this material must have worked on stage, where it's easier to slip between layers of reality. But it works beautifully on screen, too. The general complaint about most stage-to-screen adaptations is that they wind up feeling too airless and claustrophobic. But those qualities are, if anything, a bonus in "The Father," deepening its portrait of cognitive entrapment.

Remarkably, none of the movie's dazzling surface tricks undermine the emotion at its core. The story in "The Father" may be scrambled, but it's also heartbreakingly simple. A man grows old and loses his memory, and his daughter, after a lifetime of love and devotion, must begin the long, agonizing process of saying goodbye. Hopkins could deliver this performance on an empty soundstage with no loss of impact. He shows us Anthony's struggle to keep his wits about him, the way he reaches for humor and then anger as a means of keeping the inevitable at bay. By the end, though, his every last defense has been stripped away. And Hopkins lays the character bare with a vulnerability I've rarely seen from him or any actor. It's a devastating performance and an impossible one to forget.

DAVIES: Justin Chang is the film critic for the LA Times. He reviewed "The Father," which begins streaming on various platforms March 26. Coming up, Lloyd Schwartz reviews a new documentary about Marian Anderson, part of the PBS "American Experience" series. This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSETTE EXPLOSION'S "L'INCOMPRISE") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.