Anthony (Sir Anthony Hopkins) is an eighty-year-old former engineer with a luxurious London apartment filled with art and music. What’s missing is a carer, someone to make sure he eats, takes his pills and is comfortable as dementia makes his behavior increasingly unpredictable. By times charming, other times angry, confused and controlling and always convinced someone has stolen his prized wristwatch, he’s scared away a series of caretakers. “I don’t need anyone,” he bellows in denial. His daughter Anne (Olivia Colman) moved in to run the house, but she’s relocating to Paris and needs to find someone to look after her father.
That is the set-up. From here director Florian Zeller, who co-wrote the script with Christopher Hampton, artfully toggles between realities, Anne’s story and the way Anthony sees what’s happening in his beloved apartment. It is a disorienting technique that switches perspectives without warning, creating a knotty drama where nothing is as it seems in a carefully crafted depiction of dementia.
“The Father” is a sensitively made portrait of a failing mind anchored by a towering, emotional performance from Hopkins. The Oscar winner has made a career playing characters etched in ice; cool and collected. Here we see the vulnerable side, the lion in winter slowly losing himself to the vagaries of disease. It’s a tour de force of a performance that is often a difficult watch but his control of the character, particularly in the film’s final heartbreaking moments, as Anthony’s real and illusory lives intersect, is astonishing.
Coleman brings subtlety and warmth to the long-suffering Anne, but it’s Imogene Poots who makes the most of her small but wonderfully written scene. In the course of just a few minutes she falls prey to Anthony’s charm only to feel the bite of his poison tongue, navigating a range of emotions and reactions like a character on the run from an Edward Albee play.
The success of “The Father” isn’t the structurally complex storytelling but the performances that traverse the trickery of the telling to find the humanity of the situation.