How does one respond when they cannot know reality? This is the main question of the Father.
The Father is adapted from director Florian Zeller's stage play by the same name. The story centers on Anthony (Anthony Hopkins), an aging man who slowly loses his grip on reality due to dementia. His daughter Anne (Olivia Colman) does her best to care for him, but she too has a life she wants to live-her boyfriend Paul (Rufus Sewell) has asked her to move to Paris with him. Anne struggles to find an aid who can handle her father, so that she can get on with her life. Zeller shared that his inspiration for the film was watching his grandmother, who raised him, pass away from dementia. You can feel the emotion coming through every part of the film.
The movie starts with Anne confronting Anthony for chasing off the last assistant. Anthony claims he did it because she stole his watch. Anne patiently reminds him that he put it in his hiding place. She goes and finds the watch in his "secret" hiding place. At first, we are able to chuckle about the situation, but we soon become just as confused as Anthony. The tone of the movie shifts when Anthony stumbles upon a man in his flat who claims to be married to his daughter. He waits for Anne to return from the store to sort things out, but when she arrives, she is a different woman entirely.
The rest of film has confusing moments like this. Once you think you have sorted things out, they are flipped again. I watched this at the premier at Sundance, and during the Q & A after the film, a woman asked if Anne went to Paris with Paul or not. Zeller responded that we don't know that answer, the answer is not what is important. Zeller stated that he wanted us to be as confused as Anthony and give up on trying to sort things out and just feel. And feel we do.
Anthony Hopkins performance drove the emotion. His masterful control of minor expressions and vocal nuance intensified the whole film. I would not be surprised if he wins best actor next year. Zeller admitted that he named the character "Anthony," because he wanted Anthony Hopkins to play the part. (The part was literally written for him.) Anthony's emotions swing in the film driven by his loss of memory and disorientation to events. Everyone seems to be on edge, not knowing how Anthony will respond. One moment he is happy, the next he is distressed. This comes out strongly when Anthony meets Laura (Imogen Poots) for the first time. Laura is a young woman who Anne has set up as Anthony's new caregiver. Anthony begins telling Laura how he used to be a tap-dancer. The scene is funny, and Laura laughs throughout. Suddenly, Anthony remarks that Laura reminds him of his other daughter, because of her inane laughter-and the mood has swung.
The key question in the audiences mind is "What is reality?" Zeller disorients Anthony and the audience by having different actors play the same characters, then switching back. Zeller rearranges the same apartment, so we are unsure where we are-Anthony's apartment or Anne's. Anthony tells different versions of his career, and we even seem to experience events out of order. The only thing we are certain of is that they don't even speak English in Paris!
This is not to say that there are multiple realities, but that Anthony cannot access what the true reality is. As the audience, we become like Anthony-confused. We do not know what his daughter looks like or if she is married. If she is, which man is her husband? However, this confusion over reality is meant to push us beyond discovering the truth and just feeling the helplessness of someone suffering from dementia. And to this point, it works.
But, it takes us beyond this. By the end of the film we are all confused. We cannot access what reality is, and now it is time for us to ask, "How do we respond?" The film has its answer, but I'll leave it up to you to feel if you agree. This is one film that has to be watched to appreciate, because it focuses on the feeling of the experience and not the truth of the experience.
A couple extra notes:
First, Zeller shared that the classical music that Anthony listens to throughout the film is Hopkins's favorite music. Hopkins always wanted to be in a movie that used this music, and now he got the chance.
Second, often movies adapted from stage plays can feel very confined and unnatural to the screen. Events that would naturally lead a character elsewhere seems to falsely confine them to that space, since the play needs to keep them there. However, Zeller does a nice job at expanding the world and making the small space feel new. Most of the film takes place in the apartment, but because of the rearrangement and use of different rooms in the apartment, it feels larger and natural.