The Father is a deeply moving dementia drama that sees a dynamite cast support perhaps the best performance of Anthony Hopkins’ career.
I adore the cinema, but I also love baseball. In baseball, the best performance a pitcher can have is called a perfect game – it’s when he gets every batter he faces to make an out. When you watch a perfect game – there have only been 23 in baseball’s 150-year history – you start to become aware of it about halfway through. You realize that the pitcher is on his game, and that there’s a chance you might be witnessing history. It simply has a different feel to watch the pitcher work through a perfect game – a high wire act of brilliance where one little misstep, a pitch that misses its spot by less than an inch, could derail greatness. And so is the feeling watching Anthony Hopkins in The Father.
So, I must admit that most of the last two decades of Anthony Hopkins’ work has given me little joy. He’s seemed too willing to take paycheck roles he openly maligns in interviews – and with his disinterested performances – in stuff like the Thor series, HBO’s Westworld, a small flock of straight-to-VOD junk, and the worst entry in Michael Bay’s Transformers series. I had thought the man, perhaps the greatest Western actor of the 90s, had lost his spark for the craft. Last year’s The Two Popes gave me some hope that the old Hopkins was in there somewhere, but much of the performance seemed to be Hannibal Lecter in a cassock and fascia.
The Father gives Hopkins the sort of material he’s not had to dig into in a very long time. Playing a man wracked with dementia, Hopkins is given a role that calls not only for his usual bravura masculine screen presence, but also the light charm he can employ and, more remarkably, the vulnerability that has long stayed far beneath the surface of his performances. The Father’s brilliant structure allows Hopkins to texture moments of cruelty with bursts of levity or empathy just a few minutes later.
The film opens with Olivia Colman (The Favourite) visiting her father (Hopkins) in his flat. It is immediately apparent all is not well with her dad. The conversation between the two takes on a looping structure while he fails to recall basic events in his daughter’s history. His missing watch become an obsession – a totem smartly used to reflect a man trapped out of time and place by his crumbling mental state. Soon, his daughter departs, only to return soon thereafter, now played to Hopkins’ shock by Olivia Williams (An Education). Hopkins wisely underplays the confusion of the moment as though it is a monumental struggle that he simply must overcome without allowing another soul to know. And so, scenes elide together through creative editing – roles, times, and locations shift with nary a notice – Colman returns and other strangers and family enter Hopkins’ orbit.
Soon, a caretaker is introduced (played intelligently by Imogen Poots, of The Art of Self-Defense), and it is in that first scene between Hopkins, Colman, and Poots when I realized I might be catching a glimpse of an actor throwing a perfect game. Poots – playing a new potential caretaker – quickly brings new a side out of Hopkins: the charmer. Upon seeing her, his entire demeanor changes. Struck by her resemblance to his absent daughter, Hopkins invites her for a drink and invents a new history for himself as a tap dancer. His entire body language transforms in the moments he cuts loose with a swig of whiskey and a quick living room jig. When the mood shifts, as it must, Hopkins’ mastery of the frame, and the character, astonishes… and withers.
A pitcher cannot achieve a perfect game without good defense around him to field the batted balls. Hopkins’ scene partners are uniformly brilliant and humane. Olivia Colman is simply astonishing as a woman struggling to carry the burden of caring for her deteriorating father. The toll his casual cruelty takes on her appears quite literally put a weight on her shoulder before our eyes – it’s a remarkable, subtle performance. The film would not work half so well without her contribution. Rufus Sewell (Dark City), playing Colman’s husband, perfectly encapsulates the feeling of a man trapped between his marriage and the burden his wife has taken on. The film – and performance – are smart enough that he’s never presented a villain, rather a man worn down by circumstance. Olivia Williams has real grace in a truly difficult role.
Finally, a pitcher’s team need to score some runs for the pitcher to complete a perfect game. The direction and writing structure of The Father are absolute aces. Despite some tremendously successful entries in the recent dementia tragedy subgenre – Away from Her is a personal favorite – no film has as effectively tackled the impact of dementia on its victim. The puzzle box structure employed by Florian Zeller is, for once, not used in the service of a gimmick-riddled mystery, but rather to reflect the deteriorating mind of our protagonist. The sad but brilliant editing coalesces into an inverse relationship as the audience gains more clarity as Hopkins’ grasp on the real further deteriorates.
So… did Hopkins complete the perfect game? The film ends on a note of human vulnerability I’ve simply never seen from Hopkins before and it absolutely destroyed me. In the hours after watching the film, I found myself feeling unconsciously worried about the real Hopkins’ actual mental state, a reflection of how real his filmic deterioration felt for me. The Father might just be the finest performance of Anthony Hopkins’ legendary career and seems to me the very definition of an actor’s perfect game.
The Father premiered at the Toronto International Film Festival on Monday, September 14, 2020.
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