The Father film review: a portrait of dementia that pulls you into the eye of the storm


I confess, I deliberately swerved the 2012 stage play on which The Father is based. The play (co-written and directed by Florian Zeller, here making his film debut) is “about” dementia and mental decrepitude is not a topic I associate with thrills.

I stand corrected. Anthony (Anthony Hopkins) lives in a lawless Maida Vale mansion block. His scheming, violent daughter, Anne (Olivia Colman; staggeringly good), is married to the glowering, Duke of Cornwall-esque Paul (Rufus Sewell). Strangers constantly invade Anthony’s home and his new care worker (Imogen Poots) is a gurning fool.

At least, that’s how Anthony sees it.

Keep your eyes on the corridor lampshades and kitchen tiles (they keep changing). That, plus the ominous music, not to mention the camerawork (lots of uncanny tracking shots) make Anthony’s abode as scary as anything in The Shining.

By the way, he himself is terrifying.

Tons of Hollywood movies have told us what it’s like to have dementia, or love someone who has it. The Father does something different. It puts us in the eye of the storm and, on top of all that, finds a way to make the chaos funny. Anthony tells a doctor, “My daughter has a tendency to repeat herself. It’s an age thing.”

The Father is inherently democratic. As in the Iranian classic, A Separation, we’re encouraged to have sympathy for a caring woman who doesn’t want to be a carer, and for the low-paid worker, also female, (Olivia Williams; perfect), who will therefore have to pick up the slack.

It’s clearly a personal project. In the play, the protagonist is called “Andre”. Zeller changed it to Anthony, in honour of Hopkins. And surely it’s no coincidence that Zeller’s own son, Roman, is a member of the cast. Roman is a young boy seen happily kicking a plastic bag. His carefree presence sends a sad, if subliminal, message. Anne is burdened with Anthony. One day, Roman may be burdened with Zeller.

How do you care for ill people who will never get better and often don’t know they’re unwell? The Father is full of abyss-deep questions and, with its final scene, will probably make you cry harder than any other film this year.

While most of the cast and crew are British, Zeller is French, wrote the screenplay with the British writer Christopher Hampton (who has translated most of his plays) and the editor, Yorgos Lamprinos, is Greek. This international team playfully serve up humour, menace and tragedy. It’s a winning combination, blissful proof of what Europeans – when they stand together – can achieve.

97mins cert 12A. In cinemas

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