‘The Father’ wages war on reality

Image from The Father
Trademark Films/Courtesy

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Grade: 4.5/5.0

“The Father” is the kind of movie that makes you forget to move your face. You sit there motionless and gripped, cheeks getting cold. That nose is missing a little feeling. As the end sneaks up, you’ll hold the same position you started in. The only difference is your eyes might well up and a tear may slip down your face, and that’ll be the only warm thing to have touched you in the past hour and a half. Maybe you slouched in defeat, too.

Anthony Hopkins, in the arresting performance, plays Anthony, a snarky patriarch battling dementia and clinging to his independence despite the objections of his daughter, Anne (Olivia Colman, oozing with subtlety). That independence blinks away as writer-director Florian Zeller transforms Anthony’s dementia into a mesmerizingly unstable story.

Anthony and Anne quarrel as daughter and father; meanwhile, Hopkins and Colman spar across a living room. Wait — now that’s Hopkins across from Olivia Williams as Anne, with her husband, Paul, here played by Mark Gatiss, claiming this is their apartment, not Anthony’s. As faces, time and place dissolve, Colman slips back into the story and Paul mysteriously switches to an ominous Rufus Sewell. Neither Hopkins nor Colman gains the upper hand, and neither Anthony nor Anne wins out in this unsettling power struggle. Their conclusion is purposefully unsatisfying — one finds desertion, the other guilt.

Even as they hurtle toward despair, Colman’s intensity remains muted. Soft-spoken, unassertive and resilient, Anne withers under her father; Colman is helped by a soundtrack that is sharp without stealing the spotlight. What’s in focus is the artistic lighting and wardrobes, the meticulous blocking and set design. Anthony’s apartment flips from residence to doctor’s office to nursing home, each change bringing a new nightmare.

The theatricality of Zeller’s stage play of the same name, adapted for the screen with the help of Christopher Hampton, paints “The Father” in swirling colors, defying continuity as dementia does but recognizing the endurance of impressions. Is it the lamp that looks different? Or maybe the couch? Something is always off, but it’s impossible to know exactly what, leaving the viewer with only one option: letting go.

Hopkins bottles a subversive terror in this wicked game — though, such a somber and unsentimental movie is a far cry from a “game.” As Zeller scrambles his Rubik’s cube, Hopkins disassembles it and then remakes it with entirely different dimensions. He splits into shapes of his past characters — there he is as Lear, then as Lecter, then as that witty and oddly charming character from “Transformers: The Last Knight” — to eerily knock on the fourth wall. That’s Anthony devolving on screen, but it could just as well be Hopkins, or your father.

By virtue of impeccable screenwriting, an earnest shred of the unaddled Anthony can’t be shaken, regardless of Hopkins’s efforts. Anthony gazes out a window, looking at a spry schoolboy on the street below. The objects of his desire, youth and freedom, are out of reach.

With love, “The Father” humbles arrogance. As the world goes topsy-turvy, the conviction that Anthony is imagining everything solidifies. After a few dizzying turns down Anthony’s hall of mirrors, we’re inclined to assume he’s wrong on every front. But Zeller reprimands hubris at the end when reality makes a sobering return. It turns out the father was right about a thing or two, and “The Father” discards ego just as it does the fragments of Anthony’s now-shattered fiction. Zeller washes the viewer out of Anthony’s mind and into glaring reality, but in the dreariness he offers a small piece of humanity to cling to.

The grace, the one concession of kindness in “The Father,” is that it doesn’t kill the most recessed holdout of faith. It ends with a perverse hope, a glimmer that sometimes, on some days, Anthony will be alright. He’ll remember less and less, but there will be moments of lucidity, eventually just a few flickering seconds when he’ll know who he is — and that’s the best anyone in his position can hope for.

Dominic Marziali covers film. Contact him at [email protected].