Memories. Sitting here on this Thursday morning, if I asked you about one time in your life you were happy, hopefully, many memories flash to mind. Maybe it's when you went on a picnic with your friends last summer. The week you traveled to a new country. The day you binged Fresh Prince of Bel-Air with lemonade on your side. Like a slideshow, when we think back to delightful times, pictures and stills of life fly by — you can only hope to devour it all. But what happens when you can't remember these memories? The events that made you, you? First, it's forgetting where you put your watch, then losing track of what day it is, up until the point that you can't remember your mother's name or even your name. They say you don't know what you got til' it's gone, but what if you can't recall what you lost in the first place? "The Father," asks these questions, painting possible answers through the disintegrating protagonist, Anthony, played by the wonderful Anthony Hopkins.
The first feature from French novelist and playwright Florian Zeller unravels the familiar tale of a parent's deteriorating health and the loved ones who grapple in taking care of them while also persevering themselves. At once, viewers experience a scolding and melancholy presence creeping upon their shoulders. Anthony also shares a burning sense of perplexity at the height of the film and the depressing knowledge that his life will never be the same.
When we first meet Anthony, a seemingly healthy octogenarian, he prances around an upscale London flat, classical music rummaging through the air. As Anthony's middle-aged daughter, Anne (Olivia Colman), arrives, she tells her father she is moving to Paris to pursue a new relationship. His initial reaction is one of bafflement, but quickly the long-term of Anne's plans settles in. "You're abandoning me," he replies as his face droops. Hopkins demonstrates this sheer vulnerability and the bravado exterior he tries and ultimately fails to uphold from the first ten minutes of the film.
Anne is worried about her father. Nothing she seems to do is helping him get any better. Anthony recently spooked off his last caregiver after accusing her of theft, and the search for a new one doesn't seem promising. After Anne leaves, he hears a noise in the apartment and sees an unfamiliar man (Mark Gatiss) reading a newspaper. The man says he is Anne's husband, Paul, but isn't Anne divorced? And why is the man saying Anthony is their guest? Confused and agitated by this unwelcome presence, Anthony is relieved to hear Anne return. But now she is played by Olivia Williams. Anthony nor the audience recognize her. What is going on? Later, Rufus Sewell appears as different, vexed Paul. His irritability eventually causes the movie's tone to overflow and spill into a dark and murky path.
In an hour and thirty-seven minutes, "The Father" majestically places the audience in the middle of a falling mind. Wrapped in Anthony's perception of the world, we feel like we are running across an old bridge to get to the other side. And the planks falling rapidly behind our footsteps reminded us of our increasing mortality. The world can betray us all, but what happens when our mind does? Zeller's persistent approach in placing viewers smack dab into Anthony's distorted livelihood leaves us all to question the people, places, and things that mold our humanity.
As the film progresses, Anthony insistently becomes possessive of his watch. This item seems like the only thing he can depend on, even though he misplaces it frequently. Perhaps the watch, an object to tell time, is Anthony's way of clinging onto the little time he has left.
The arrival of Imogen Poots as a potential candidate to look after Anthony provides some sunshine in the dreary clouds that surround Anthony's home and his mind. He is jubilant, charming, and flirtatious with the young woman, toting out lies about past explorations and aspirations. She also reminds him of his second daughter, who was an artist, but conversation ceases when someone mentions her name.
Film writer, Jeannette Catsoulis, points out, "Whether as Lear or Lecter, Hopkins has never been an especially physical actor — most of the magic happens above the neck — but here he pushes his capacity for small, telling gestures and stillness to distressing limits." The subtleties in each character's movements, expressions, and tone, pounce at our expectations of normalcy, backspacing our perceived notion of reality.
Different tiles on the kitchen backsplash; rearranged bedroom assortment; or a white grocery bag instead of a blue one holding the chicken to roast that night is production designer Peter Francis's vivid touch in crafting various versions of the same confined setting. "The Father" largely blooms into fruition in only one space — the family's flat. Yet, viewers never get bored or feel enclosed at any point. Coleman and Hopkin's virtuous performances make us feel free. The world around us keeps moving, but we stay still in the same bodies, have the same brain. Whether you feel comfortable or trapped in hearing this fact is up to you.
Anne's love for her father never dwindles as Anthony becomes paranoid, manipulative, and even downright cruel. Yet, caring about someone and caring for someone are two drastically different things. "Do you intend to go on ruining your daughter's life?" Sewell's Paul hisses to Anthony at one point. His resentment hangs like an overripe fruit, forcing Anthony's ignorance, guilt, or both, to stop in its tracks.
In the final shots of the film, we see Anthony in a senior-care facility. He seems to have been there for some time now, but he wakes up startled and confused. This isn't his home. A nurse walks in and explains why he is here. Then, viewers hear what the film has been leading up to. "Who exactly am I?," Anthony asks. Words of comfort fail to meet the nurse's lips.
"I feel as if I'm losing all my leaves," Anthony continues. "The branches and the wind and the rain. I don't know what's happening anymore. Do you know what's happening?," he asks. The hopelessness the audience feels at this moment reaches its pique. A glum realization dawns upon us, any emotional distance we've tried to have between ourselves and Anthony is long gone, yet there is nothing we can do to help.
"I want my mommy," purses from the old man's lips. And what can we do but cry?
When reporter Kyle Buchanan sat down for an interview with Hopkins for the New York Times, he asked him if the tragic depths of "The Father" prompted him to think back on his own life or to mull how the past commingling with the present can take your breath away? Sort of, he replied.
"I know I'm getting old," Hopkins said. "I take care of myself, I'm fit and strong. But there are no guarantees."
Yet, Hopkins looks forward to the future, the momentum of being alive and appreciating everything that comes your way. "I look back on it, and I think, 'It's all a dream, anyway," he calmly remarks. "Of that I am convinced. To me, it's an illusion, that's all."
When Buchanan asked Hopkins what more he hopes to accomplish in his 80s, the seasoned actor smiled.
"To go on for another 20 years," he said.
Above all, "The Father" reminds us that even as the leaves fall, we can choose to go with the wind and keep moving on.
“The Father” is nominated in the Best Picture category for the upcoming 2021 Oscars and in five other categories; Hopkins and Coleman gaining recognition for their performances.
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