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Wednesday, 7 April 2021

Review: The Father

What's surprising about The Father is that unlike every other Alzheimer's-themed movie in recent memory, this one goes for the head rather than the heart. Obviously there's loads of heart-wrenching moments as we see the lead's very sense of himself slipping away, but the main point here isn't to make you feel for an Alzheimer's sufferer, but to feel like an Alzheimer's sufferer.

As that implies, this isn't exactly a fun night out at the movies. The script (adapted by Florian Zeller from his successful play) is designed to constantly keep you on edge, wondering when and if events have taken place, struggling to match faces to characters while being shocked by scenes of abuse that may have been exaggerated if not imagined entirely.

The events of the film take place largely in a single London apartment - or do they? It seems likely that what we're seeing is jumbled highlights over a number of years, with dialogue making it clear that at least one major shift takes place over that period. The (extremely impressive) set design changes things up in ways that echo each other, constantly reminding us of somewhere else while possibly being somewhere entirely new.

Likewise with the casting, as a range of performers (Olivia Coleman, Olivia Williams, Imogen Poots, Mark Gattis, Rufus Sewell) play characters that may or may not overlap, with roles - his daughter, his carer, his son-in-law - constantly changing as the film progresses. At least in his dementia Anthony (Anthony Hopkins) consistently sees his son-in-law as a sleaze, with both Sewell and Gattis being reliably smarmy.

It's a powerhouse showcase for Hopkins, charting his character's disorientation and decline in a fashion that never quite submerges the man he once was, giving us - and his family - just enough to cling onto as he loses his moorings, behaviours left behind with nothing underpinning them. A scene of brutal nastiness hammers home that he was once a man capable of great cruelty, only now more often than not it's only the cruelty that remains.

It's on Hopkins' shoulders to give this film what emotional impact it has. With a lesser actor in the lead it would come off as a dry exercise in recreating the confusion and decline of Alzheimer's, a familiar story that the movies have pretty much plumbed dry yet keep coming back to (Supernova, a more heartfelt look at dealing with the disease, is out in a few weeks). Unsurprisingly Hopkins, who can do subtle but has never been shy of scenery-chewing when need be, makes Anthony a lion in winter, a pushy, demanding man who refuses to face the crumbling ruin he's becoming.

The Father is undoubtedly successful in every way that counts, a deeply affecting film that brings home the horror of Alzheimer's in a way few films dare - and rightly so, because it's hard to imagine anyone wanting to sit through this type of thing twice. It's an experience in helplessness, in losing yourself to confusion and pain until all that's left is despair; maybe find a cinema that lets you take in a drink.

- Anthony Morris

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