When you watch a film like The Father, you come in with certain expectations. Olivia Colman, Anthony Hopkins and dementia drama from a first-time director; you have been down this road before. It takes less than ten minutes to realize you are in for a different experience entirely. If you give it a chance, Florian Zeller takes you down an unexpected road where a fairly rote and linear story is turned into a mystery.
Hopkins stars as Anthony, a man who seems content and independent in his advancing age. Colman portrays his daughter Anne as the constantly concerned woman who comes to see her father in his flat with the announcement that she is moving to Paris.
As soon as she leaves, Anne is suddenly living there and introducing her father to a new live-in nurse (Imogen Poots). Suddenly, a man named Paul (Mark Gattis) appears in his living room claiming to be Anne’s husband, Anthony, and the audience, is fully disoriented until Anne arrives through the front door, but is now played by Olivia Williams. The next scene, Rufus Sewell shows up and now he is Paul. This all occurs in the first 30 minutes.
What Zeller conducts is nothing short of a miracle. The apartment is laid out with such precision, you feel part of the set as soon as you land. The perspective of the flat shifts, but feels familiar while Anthony continues to attempt to get his bearings. For a first-time director to trust an audience so implicitly is rare. Zeller never explains a time-jump or interjects lazy exposition. Instead, the narrative unfolds like a piece of origami, revealing new layers and answering questions while raising new ones as we flow through the brisk 97 minutes.
Colman’s recent Oscar win and her newfound fame on The Crown has tempered the belief in her abilities, but she brings her A-game throughout. In attempting to deal with her father’s illness, she fluctuates between acting as the rock Anthony can lean on, to skittish child who is running out of options. She never plays Anne as a woman who would her father as a burden, but as human as a person could be while still trying to maintain her own mental health. Would anyone begrudge her a fleeting fantasy?
Zeller’s true casting coup is the casting of Williams, who looks and acts just enough like Colman that you aren’t sure what you are watching. There are significant portions of the film where you think Anthony might be gaslit. Is this a big ruse to steal his apartment? If Colman and Williams look so much alike, why do the two Pauls look so different?
All of this wouldn’t work without the brilliance of Hopkins. For actors of advancing age, I worry they can’t bring the goods when the scene requires much needed energy. Hopkins hobbles through much of the film seemingly out of breath and, at times, unable to properly dress himself. But when Hopkins needs to dial it up, he brings the vigor and fire. When Anthony meets his new potential nurse, he claims to have been a dancer in his younger years, shamelessly flirts and charms the young lady, and offers her a drink. Before a heel turn, Anthony shows his mind is the only thing failing him as he physically dominates the scene.
All of this culminates in a neat way without putting a perfect bow on the film. More than anything, dementia is shown to be a puzzle box on the intellect and puts real humanity behind the man, not the disease. More notably, Anthony is seen as a bit of prick in his most lucid of moments. Just because he has a horrible affliction, does not make the man a saint. This avoids the after-school-special pratfalls that befall lesser filmmakers.
In one swift motion, Zeller has launched himself as one of the most exciting filmmakers. I will put my full trust into Zeller no matter which direction he goes next.