The best line reading Anthony Hopkins gives during his monumental performance in Florian Zeller’s The Father comes in the film’s final scene, which is both a blessing and a king bummer. All anyone should want to do is live in that reading, sit awestruck at how Hopkins puts a name to the one thing that can assuage his character’s anguish and stare grief-stricken in the knowledge that the one thing he needs is the one thing he can’t have. The entire movie is an exercise in heartache, but it’s this final piece of dialogue that punctuates the drama preceding it and finally releases the suffering roiling under its surface.
Hopkins’ character, also named Anthony, spends most of The Father fighting for his independence like a wolf cornered by hunters, stubbornly refusing to accept his clear mental deterioration and the need for professional help. His daughter Anne (Olivia Colman) has, as the picture opens, tried and failed several times over to find him a caregiver he’ll take to—and given her announced intention to relocate to Paris, her search has gained in urgency. Anthony isn’t pleased at her news. In fact, as they sit in his well-appointed London flat together, he gives her the business, expressing his opinion of her life plans with his canines bared. He’s not happy. But deep down, in the parts of him that remain self-aware, he’s mostly just afraid.
Zeller has adapted The Father from his own award-winning play Le Père, and though he’s left the material of the script untouched, he’s transitioned to his new medium with subtle enhancements: Cinematographer Ben Smithard uses his lens as a screw gun, putting up figurative walls around Zeller’s cast in addition to the literal walls of the set. Visual claustrophobia compliments spatial claustrophobia, trapping the viewer in the flat and, far more importantly, in Anthony’s crumbling psyche. A simple open-concept apartment becomes labyrinthine through his point of view, and that’s before supporting characters begin to wander about its halls and loiter in its doors, in and out of his perception, assuming they were even there to begin with. Anne’s husband rotates between Bill (Mark Gatiss) and Paul (Rufus Sewell), each repeating the other’s attempts at strong-arming Anthony into leaving his flat, as if there’s a question as to who Anne is married to, or maybe when.
Time really doesn’t have much meaning for someone in Anthony’s position. It’s not uncommon that dementia patients experience altered time awareness, and Anthony in particular sees events in his mind reordered and experiences relived. The gentlest way of describing his condition is “time travel,” except that careening back and forth between past and present the way Anthony appears to seems nightmarish. Whether he’s acting like an irascible old codger or performing softshoe routines for Laura (Imogen Poots), his new nurse, he masks the terror well, though Hopkins keeps it just at the edges of his performance.
Somewhere in Anthony lies buried the realization that he’s not falling apart as much as he’s already fallen apart, and his sharp wit, searing temper and put-on charms merely compensate for his existential fright. It’s in Hopkins’ eyes. There’s primal self-recognition lingering in his gaze, a signal that Anthony knows Anne is right even as he defies her every well-meaning wish. Within the physical, commanding framework of Hopkins’ performance, that little tell feels like his most significant flourish, a window into what makes Anthony so easily agitated and insistent on his own agency. No one can imagine the dreadful moment when it’s become all too clear that they’re not capable of looking after themselves, that they need help when they’re too damn proud to take it, much less ask for it themselves. Anthony’s war with his pleading daughter and bullying son-in-law (or sons-in-law) is just a battle with his infirmity, which he wages primarily with denial. It’s an astounding, charred turn by Hopkins—a reminder, if anyone needs one, that he’s one of the greats of his generation.
Zeller’s supporting cast, for what it’s worth, does wonderfully too, but even Colman—one of our preeminent actresses—functions as a foil for Hopkins to act against first and a singular character second. Similar to how the characters are there to serve Anthony, Colman, Gatiss, Sewell and Poots are there to serve Hopkins. The stage belongs to him. What he does with it is something special, an unmissable performance from an actor with a filmography loaded with them.
Director: Florian Zeller
Writer: Florian Zeller, Christopher Hampton
Starring: Anthony Hopkins, Olivia Colman, Rufus Sewell, Mark Gatiss, Imogen Poots
Release Date: February 26 (NY/LA); March 26 (PVOD)
Bostonian culture journalist Andy Crump covers the movies, beer, music, and being a dad for way too many outlets, perhaps even yours. He has contributed to Paste since 2013. You can follow him on Twitter and find his collected work at his personal blog. He’s composed of roughly 65% craft beer.