Based on his stage play of the same title, Florian Zeller’s feature film debut, The Father is a devastating drama about a relationship between Anne (Olivia Colman) and her father Anthony (Anthony Hopkins) as his memory takes a rapid decline.
Anne is forced to reckon with the fact that her father’s grasp on reality is quickly slipping away and shows no signs of stopping. Meanwhile, for ornery, charismatic Anthony, this couldn’t be further from the truth. He’s convinced he’s fully capable of living alone and supporting himself in his London flat. To him, Anne’s a well-meaning, if overprotective worrier and he refuses to be coddled. In reality, Anne has ample cause for concern, as Anthony’s latest in-home caretaker just quit after he became belligerent with her, accusing her of stealing his watch. The watch later turns out to be hidden in Anthony’s secret stash of objects under the tub. Anne visits Anthony at his flat to inform him that she’s moving to Paris with the man she just met. She thinks it’s time to discuss moving Anthony into somewhere with full-time care, an idea immediately dismissed by Anthony in an outburst — our first taste of his hot temper.
The next time we see “Anne,” she isn’t played by Olivia Colman. She’s played by Olivia Williams. Just like Anthony, we don’t recognize her. It’s a vexing moment — one of dozens throughout The Father — where Zeller toys with both Anthony and the audience’s notion of reality. When Anthony asks Anne about her plans to move to Paris with her new man, she is completely flummoxed, confessing she has no intention to leave London. It’s jarring and unsettling, forcing us to second-guess everything we see — just as Anthony is.
Later, Anthony finds a man he does not recognize lounging in his living room. He interrogates the man, who claims to be Anne’s partner Paul (played by both Rufus Sewell and Mark Gatiss). Anthony teases the man, saying Anne has plans to move to Paris with her new beau. Paul’s amused, humoring Anthony’s delusion, until Anthony remarks about owning this flat for the last thirty years. Paul reminds Anthony that this is Anne’s flat and he’s been living with them for several weeks now.
Throughout The Father, the rug is perpetually pulled out from underneath Anthony. A sense of inevitable dread permeates every scene. Different actors play Anne, her partner, and various caretakers, channeling the distressful confusion people like Anthony experience while grappling memory loss-related diseases. Zeller and co-writer Christopher Hampton (Atonement, A Dangerous Mind) never officially identify which is afflicting Anthony, lending his ailment a universality that any viewer could relate to, as these diseases have or will impact all of us in some capacity.
Most of the reality reversals are effective in planting us in Anthony’s distorted perspective, but some veer into sensational territory. Zeller’s direction can come off as stagey, which isn’t surprising given the story’s origins, and the fact that the film is predominantly set indoors in flats. The atmosphere becomes so claustrophobic that when there was a fleeting scene set in a supermarket aisle, it felt damned near liberating.
Despite the constant shifts and turns in reality, The Father remains grounded by astonishing work from Academy Award-winners Anthony Hopkins and Olivia Colman. Hopkins’s performance is a captivating demonstration of range. He infuriates you, cracks you up, and breaks your heart — often within the same scene. Colman’s turn as Anne is some of the most empathetic, heartfelt work of her career.
No one but Hopkins and Colman could play these roles. The Father is a testament to their talents and proof that they are two of the best actors we have. Both actors have delivered acting masterclasses that should find them vying for their second Oscar next year — and thankfully, The Father is good enough to get them there.
This review is from the 2020 Sundance Film Festival. The Father will be distributed by Sony Pictures Classics later in the year.
Donny Sheldon is a Philadelphia-raised, Los Angeles-based, WGA-award-winning writer. He studied Film & Cinema Studies in college at American University and earned his MFA in Dramatic Writing from NYU’s Tisch School of the Arts. He’s followed the Academy Awards race since he was 10 years-old when his (once) beloved Titanic swept the Oscars that year — although now he’s of the opinion that Boogie Nights probably should have done that. You can find Donny on Twitter and Instagram at @dtfinla