Anthony Hopkins goes for his leading role in Florian Zeller’s chamber drama THE FATHER in the running for the Oscar. This nomination is obvious and deserved, but the film around it, which has been nominated for three other Academy Awards, can’t quite keep up. We reveal why in our review.
OT: The Father (UK/FR 2020)
Anne (Olivia Colman) is very worried about her father Anthony (Anthony Hopkins). A proud man who has experienced life, he refuses any support from a carer despite his old age and steadfastly refuses to leave his comfortable London apartment. Although his memory fails him more and more often, he is convinced that he can continue to manage on his own. But when Anne suddenly tells him that she is moving to Paris to be with her new boyfriend, he is confused. Then who is this stranger in his living room who claims to have been married to Anne for over ten years? And why does this man claim that Anthony is living in her apartment as a guest and not in his own apartment? Anthony tries to understand the constantly changing circumstances and begins to doubt more and more: of his loved ones, of his mind and ultimately of his own perception.
There are films that are so perfectly tailored to their lead actor that you wonder which came first: the idea of telling a story or of putting Hollywood star XY in the spotlight in a prestigious way. But the qualitative range of such projects is large. While Gary Oldman transformed himself into Winston Churchill in 2017 for “The Darkest Hour” with the help of lots and lots of make-up, but the outstanding production was at least as convincing as his Oscar-winning performance, films like “The Danish Girl” are symptomatic of all of those Productions in which the content clearly falls behind in the face of a particularly outstanding acting performance. And in between there are films like “Lincoln” with Daniel Day-Lewis or “The Queen” with Helen Mirren; Productions that clearly benefit from the strong acting of their protagonists, but are also able to entertain in a confident, yet not excessive manner. Florian Zeller’s drama “The Father”, which has been nominated for numerous awards this year, is clearly in this vein. His chamber play, staged with minimalist means, stands or falls with its leading actor Anthony Hopkins, who earned his sixth Oscar nomination in the role of an elderly dementia patient. In fact, he takes over every little scene in “The Father”; Although next to him there are no less outstanding talents like Olivia Colman (“The Favorite”) or Imogen Poots (“Vivarium”) appear. But in terms of content, Florian Zeller, who adapted his own play for the screen (also wrote the stage script for “Only an Hour of Rest”), makes it a little too easy for himself by occasionally confusing sentimentality with emotion and emphatic disorientation with arbitrariness.
Anthony (Anthony Hopkins) and his daughter Anne (Olivia Colman) spend a lot of time together.
The play on which the feature film is based is almost a decade old. It premiered in France in 2012 under the title “Le père” and was directed by French director and screenwriter Philippe Le Guay just three years later (“A village goes blank”) filmed. While Florian Zeller does not deny the stage roots of “The Father” and instead relies on a production that is no less theatrical (and thereby creates a special intimacy with all the characters), Le Guay developed the story further for his film adaptation entitled “Floride”. His version takes place on various different set pieces and has nothing in common with the chamber play character of the original. Furthermore, given Le Guay’s tragicomic approach, “Floride” is much easier to digest than Florian Zeller’s “The Father.” In his interpretation, Anthony Hopkins plays alongside (“The Two Popes”) As the eponymous father Anthony, only two other characters have important supporting roles, while three others have at least not completely insignificant cameo appearances. However, the reduced setting and the clear cast are by no means the only stage defects that “The Father” has. While Florian Zeller has freed the dialogue to some extent from its theatricality so that the communication between all the characters has an authentic rhythm, the way in which characters enter scenes and then leave them again clearly suggests that “The Father” was originally designed to to be performed on a theater stage.
“The way characters enter and then exit scenes clearly suggests that The Father was originally intended to be performed on a theater stage.”
The setting is correspondingly minimalist. “The Father” takes place solely in Anthony’s comfortably furnished apartment, which continually changes in the demented man’s perception over the course of the 97 minutes of the film. Anthony’s apartment temporarily becomes his daughter Anne’s apartment. And at the very end it is even suggested that we may not be in the home of one or the other character. With the help of this kind of scattering of uncertain information, sometimes from one camera shot to the next, Florian Zeller succeeds well in making the gradually increasing disorientation of his protagonist tangible. And since as a viewer you first have to find your way around Zeller’s narrative and production style, you never run the risk of underestimating Anthony’s condition. But while “The Father” consistently avoids unintentionally amusing moments, many of the intimate moments between the demented senior and his self-sacrificing daughter turn into maudlin. This is less due to the dialogues, which show Anne as a resolute, but exhausted by the circumstances, makeshift carer, while Anthony does everything he can to maintain his last bit of independence. Instead, it is the interplay between the selection of scenes documented here and Ludovico Einaudi’s score (“Nomadland”)which is always a little to clearly states what the audience has to feel in this or that scene – and above all – what must necessarily be deeply felt by them. There isn’t much room for emotional nuances.
Anthony doesn’t recognize the young, friendly lady (Imogen Poots) in his living room.
While Anthony Hopkins does an excellent job of conveying to the audience the sometimes quite degrading dichotomy of emphasized independence and continuous failure at the simplest tasks for dementia patients, Florian Zeller occasionally lacks the tact that makes the film character Anthony one physical person. The constant changes in the arsenal of characters and setting serve their purpose, so that you often don’t know exactly where you are and which people we are dealing with. At the same time, the tension generated from this is irritating. “The Father” sometimes seems like a genre film in its suspense structure and the twist-like resolutions of various unclear situations; The score also stirs up a lot of unease in the relevant areas. But it seems strange to use the fate of an Alzheimer’s patient to build up clumsy suspense elements, especially since it never brings you closer to the characters; on the contrary. The setting, which is actually so true to life, often falls victim to its emphatically cinematic staging. If Florian Zeller had paid more attention to his theater influences here, “The Father” would have been much more intense, despite the more subtle production mechanisms. A fate of dementia is uncomfortable enough without the calculated fomenting of fear.
“’The Father’ sometimes seems like a genre film in its suspense structure and the twist-like resolutions of various unclear situations; The score also stirs up a lot of unease in the relevant areas. But it seems strange to use the fate of an Alzheimer’s patient to build clumsy suspense elements, especially since it never brings you closer to the characters.
Nevertheless, Olivia Coleman’s already strong performance benefits from such weaknesses. The more uncomfortable the situation is for everyone involved, the more warm-hearted the actress can act. In an already very quiet film, her Anne acts as an additional calming point and anchor for Anthony, who always takes her counterpart seriously. The interaction between Colman and Hopkins, even more than Hopkins’ performance alone, is the heart of The Father. The Oscar nomination for her is at least as deserved as that of her colleague.
Conclusion: With “The Father”, Florian Zeller creates a touching portrait of a father-daughter relationship that is intensely shaken by the father’s dementia. Anthony Hopkins and Olivia Colman master their roles excellently and help the film as a whole to overcome small and large bumps.
“The Father” can be seen in USA cinemas from August 19, 2021.