Wednesday, February 2, 2022

Oscar Film Journal: The Father (2020)

Welcome to another Oscar Film Journal entry, here at!

Catching up with last year's nominees, I finally sat down and watched The Father, directed by playwright-turned-filmmaker Florian Zeller, based on his own acclaimed play Le Pere, about an elderly man suffering from dementia and his daughter's ongoing struggle to provide him the care he needs.  

We're introduced to Anthony (a sublime Anthony Hopkins in a late-career highlight), who seems to live alone in a London flat, visited by his daughter Anne (Olivia Colman, subtly fantastic as always) after he's chased away a hired caregiver.  They discuss her frustration at his unwillingness to accept help, her impending move to Paris, his rather explosive resentment at being abandoned, and his chronically missing wrist watch.  From the opening scene we assume this will be your usual well-acted but narratively ordinary family drama, but things quickly take a shocking turn when in the next scene a man we've never seen shows up at the apartment, saying he's Anne's husband and that this is actually his place.  Anthony is as confused as we are, and things go further south when Anne herself comes home, now played by Olivia Williams.  This jarring transition sets the tone for the rest of the film, which actually puts us inside Anthony's increasingly decaying state of cognizance.  Bits of dialogue, indeed whole conversations are repeated, familiar characters appear as unfamiliar faces, the apartment's decor changes slightly throughout the film, and like Anthony we are at a loss trying to discern what is true and what is the dementia.  
We gradually learn that Anthony moved into his daughter's apartment some time ago and she found it impossible to both care for him and maintain her job, so she's hired a new caregiver (Imogen Poots), a pleasant young woman who reminds Anthony of his other daughter (who for reasons he can't remember never comes around anymore) and with whom he flirts like a schoolboy.  But Anthony's continued presence and difficulty has also put a strain on Anne's marriage to Paul (a rather cold Rufus Sewell), and the possibility of moving him to assisted living is now on the table.  

The film plays out like a disorienting dream, allowing us to experience the confusion, the frustration, the terror of not being able to remember basic facts or recent events.  I've never seen a film create such an experience of empathy around this particular condition; most of us have had loved ones descend into dementia but it's nearly impossible to verbalize what it must feel like to live this way.  Old memories get jumbled with new ones, family members seem like strangers, things go missing and the first instinct is to cry "thief," emotions boil over into each other.  This is a truly unique film.

At the center of it all, making it feel authentic, is Hopkins' performance.  The octagenarian acting legend conveys the gamut of emotional states seamlessly, and our sympathies begin to shift from his daughter's frustration to the genuine terror and confusion he feels not knowing what's happened to his once-comfortable life.  In one of the film's most poignant moments he reverts to a childlike state, tearfully pleading to be with his mommy again.  At the time of last year's Oscars I was disappointed that Chadwick Boseman didn't win the Best Actor award, but after watching The Father I can't blame the Academy one bit; Hopkins is magnificent here.

Had I known about The Father's unusual narrative structure a year ago I'd have made the time to see it much sooner.  That said, going into this thinking it's a traditional drama and then being hit with the first twist of the knife made for an oddly pleasant surprise.  "Oh, it's THAT kind of movie, is it?  This is gonna be interesting..."  The Father is a prodigious accomplishment from a first-time director, a film that actually immerses the viewer inside the main character's point of view and makes us feel what he feels.  More than that, we develop a renewed empathy, both toward those suffering from dementia and those who care for them.

I give The Father **** out of ****.

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