If the human brain were to be mapped to a folder structure, it’d probably be a mega-complex nesting of millions of folders and subfolders, hierarchies switching contextually, memories filed away deep inside folders that light up when a stimulus of pain or happiness or arousal or aroma fuses the path for an external response. That’s the illusion of human beings in control of it all, masters of our personal processors. Until the neural synapses begin burning down randomly, folders collapsing or permanently deleted, forever taking with them a part of a personality into the mouth of unknown darkness where any flash of light is also what blinds the mind.
Co-writing with Christopher Hampton, director Florian Zeller’s The Father (based on his play Le Père) is the torch that both burns and blinds Anthony (Anthony Hopkins), a widower who’s regularly visited by his worried daughter Anne (Olivia Coleman), and at first their conversation seems as normal as father-daughter exchanges would: the latter exasperated by her parent’s seemingly negligent ways about their self-well-being, the former irritated in equal measure by their offspring’s overtly cossetting ways. And yet, there’s a sense of dread in the air as Zeller switches the apartment interiors and Anne (also played by Olivia Williams) in diabolical shifts, even as Anthony’s self-assuredness begins to chip away in quiet, everyday moments. There’s a scene where he sets shopping bags on the kitchen counter and then halts as he empties one of them, unsure of what to do with it, his nonchalance suddenly forced, the empty bag a remnant of a folder brimming with memories, now without content, with no place to call its own. Anthony stuffs the bag into his trouser pocket, a gesture that’s as dipped into the rapidly emptying bag of instinctive actions as it is futile.
There’s mystery and taut drama as the sound of the front door opening announces the arrival of an unknown man, claiming to be Anne’s husband, Paul (Mark Gatiss), drops in for a chat, throwing Anthony for a spin, even as Anne gets in a caretaker, someone called Laura (Imogen Poots) who reminds Anthony of his daughter who hasn’t come visiting him at all. Plus, Anthony’s also having conversations with another Paul (Rufus Sewell), who’s brusque and mean as he sees the toll caretaking’s extracting from Anne. In this tensely created set-piece, director Zeller’s shambolic cuts mercilessly throw you into Anthony’s point of view, leaving you as disoriented and stunned as him. And you begin to sense, without 3-D effects or high-end special effects, what dementia does to a person. It gnaws away relentlessly, a rodent hungry for neural protein, imploding the complex folder structure that was meticulously created in the brain, throwing context into a tailspin, memories and emotions a splattering mess on an unknown canvas, neither the brush nor its movement in the hands of its agonized receiver.
Olivia Coleman, as the daughter, delivers a powerful performance, high on EQ and compassion, her eyes mirroring how torn Anne is between her parent and her own life that she must lead, heart-breaking love that’s both selfless and selfish. And as the father, Anthony Hopkins is a tour de force who devastates as surely as his own character disintegrates in the face of an enemy that’s both known to others and a mysterious challenge to his existence. It’s one of his best yet as he tap-dances between the shadow of Anthony’s previous jolly, charming persona into the void of a being he doesn’t recognize anymore, fighting to understand the unfathomable, sniffling into a blubbering pool of melted helplessness, exploding into snarky anger at having to deal with a low tide that’s sinking his boat, frustrated at not knowing what that boat looks like.
The Father is a brutal watch. It’s unnerving, painful, and yet hypnotic. It’s scary as hell because it takes you into a space that you don’t quite fathom. More worryingly, it promises you that if such attrition does begin, it’ll be a terrifying reminder, albeit one that you won’t remember.
Movie data powered by IMDb. All images owned by the producers. The Father is streaming on Lionsgate Play and rated U/A (Parental Guidance for children below the age of 12 years) for theme and language.
Director Florian Zeller Time 1h 37min
Writers Florian Zeller, Christopher Hampton
Stars Anthony Hopkins, Olivia Coleman, Imogen Potts, Mark Gatiss
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