Anthony Hopkins Is Extraordinary in the Oscar-Nominated Nightmare 'The Father'
The drama from Florian Zeller is brilliant and terrifying in the way it depicts what dementia does to the human mind.
Anthony Hopkins holds the rare honor of winning an Oscar for his role in a horror movie, The Silence of the Lambs, where he famously played the hissing Hannibal Lecter. His latest, which has also netted him a Best Actor nomination, is a portrayal of a different sort of terror. The Father is an hour-and-half long nightmare, a portrait of the inexplicable toll of aging and dementia on one man's brain told from his perspective. It's a puzzle designed less for the audience than for its own protagonist.
Of all the films nominated for Best Picture at this year's upcoming Academy Awards, The Father arguably has the least name recognition. After all, it's just now available to rent on streaming platforms as of March 26, despite having premiered way back at the beginning of 2020 during the Sundance Film Festival. The fairly basic title doesn't do justice to the complexities of this unnerving project based on a play by Florian Zeller, the film's director and co-writer of the screenplay with Christopher Hampton. It's a mystery that's impossible to solve because there are no answers when it comes to the disintegration of human life. You can spend the whole runtime searching for clues as to what is "real" and what is the product of the eponymous character's failing mind, but that would undermine what Zeller accomplishes in his surreal approximation of what it is like to lose your grasp on the world.
Hopkins plays Anthony, an ailing man who is at turns charming, enraged, childlike, and confused. In the opening scene, his daughter Anne (Olivia Colman) pays him a visit after he's chased off another caretaker, accusing her of stealing his watch, which he apparently had just hidden. Anne explains that she's moving to Paris and she needs to find another person to help him. But the plot is not as simple as that. As it unfolds, details—both big and small—shift. Suddenly, there's a man in his apartment, who says he is married to Anne, who is no longer portrayed by Olivia Colman, but Olivia Williams. The rooms change too: Is this really his place? Or is it Anne's? Has it ever belonged to him? A painting disappears; the floor plan subtly shifts. The way Zeller and his production designer Peter Francis orchestrate these changes are almost imperceptible, but nevertheless disorienting and utterly crucial to the narrative.
The timeline in The Father is nearly as confusing as the one in Tenet, but that's purposeful. From Anthony's viewpoint, it seems like weeks possibly pass over the course of the film, but, later, Anne indicates that what the audience has been witnessing was just a single day.
As Anthony, Hopkins someone who is constantly battling the effects of his age. He desperately wants to be in control of his faculties, and the look of betrayal that crosses his face when bewilderment sets in is devastating to behold. He can command a room when he wants to—deftly sweet-talking a carer (Imogen Poots) with liquor and tap dancing. In the blink of an eye, however, he is angry and threatened, lashing out maliciously or cowering like a kid at the mercy of a vindictive parent.
Anne is not the careless next of kin he sometimes envisions her as. Colman, who was nominated for an Oscar in the supporting category, is as central to the piece as Hopkins. Her work is gutting. She wears the pain of anyone who has had to deal with an elderly loved one on her face, the mix of hurt and resignation flashing in her eyes when he doesn't recognize her or can't remember where he is.
The Father is not a simple watch, emotionally or mentally. Zeller intentionally plays tricks on the viewer, but those are not for maudlin manipulation. They are to demonstrate in as visceral a way as possible the scariness of dementia, the way it eats at a person who only just wants their life to be as it once was. It's as terrifying as any horror movie—even The Silence of the Lambs.