The Father review – Hopkins a wordy Oscar winner

<span>Photograph: Landmark Media/Alamy</span>
Photograph: Landmark Media/Alamy

This year’s Oscars closed on an unexpectedly awkward note when the award for best actor, which had been moved to the very end of the ceremony, went not to Chadwick Boseman (who the bookies had tipped as a posthumous favourite) but to an absent Anthony Hopkins. Yet despite predictions to the contrary, no one should have been surprised by Hopkins’s win, since his performance in this highly praised stage-to-screen melodrama is pure Oscar-bait: showy, wordy and worthy.

Hopkins plays Anthony, father of doting daughter Anne (Olivia Colman), who is struggling to manage her dad’s dementia. When we first meet Anthony, he has just seen off a carer, calling her a “little bitch” and suspecting her of stealing his watch, the subject of a fretful, forgetful obsession. Anthony also accuses Anne of wanting to get him out of his flat, so that she can take it for herself. But as he moves from room to room, it gradually becomes clear that past, present and future are colliding, that events from different periods of Anthony’s life, in different settings, are coexisting within his immediate experience of the “present”.

Identities are similarly fluid, with single characters played by several actors, representing Anthony’s growing confusion over who people are and how they relate to him. Thus, Mark Gatiss and Rufus Sewell perform mirrored lines as interchangeable (and sometimes hostile) male figures; Olivia Colman and Olivia Williams overlap as they buy and prepare a chicken dinner; and Imogen Poots plays a new carer who reminds Anthony of Lucy, the absent daughter whose name provokes worried stares and hurt glances from those around him.

Rufus Sewell, Anthony Hopkins and Olivia Colman in The Father.
Rufus Sewell, Anthony Hopkins and Olivia Colman in The Father. Photograph: Landmark Media/Alamy

Director Florian Zeller’s award-winning source play La Père was previously adapted for the screen as Floride, an altogether more whimsical 2015 French film starring Jean Rochefort. But whereas film-maker Philippe Le Guay opened up the confined canvas of the play, Zeller and his Oscar-winning co-writer Christopher Hampton (who had previously written a French-to-English stage translation of La Père) instead highlight the claustrophobia and “mystery” of Anthony’s first-person world, trapping him within labyrinthine rooms and corridors, like the leading characters of Michael Haneke’s Amour.

Huge plaudits are due to production designer Peter Francis, whose subtly reconfigured sets disorient the viewer, matching Anthony’s increasingly bewildered experience. Yet despite the effectiveness of this cinematic device, The Father (which is Zeller’s directorial feature debut) still retains a whiff of staginess, occasionally invoking the spectre of Roman Polanski’s inert stage-to-screen stodge Carnage.

Related: Florian Zeller on The Father: 'Anthony Hopkins took me in his arms. We knew the miracle had happened'

Part of the problem is the performative wordiness of Hopkins’s role, which, despite Zeller’s “no acting required” mantra, calls for long torrents of monologue-like thought, interspersed by bursts of out-of-context laughter and middle-distance gazing. He handles the gear shifts with enthusiasm and aplomb, but when Anthony finally breaks down, there’s little of the restrained cumulative power of a comparable scene from Richard Attenborough’s screen adaptation of Shadowlands. Hopkins may have won Oscars for The Father and for his pantomime-inflected performance as Hannibal Lecter in Silence of the Lambs, but it’s in the rigorous understatement of films such as The Remains of the Day that his true brilliance shines through.

It has become something of a screen cliche that characters with dementia are interesting only if their minds were once “exceptional”. Just as Julianne Moore bagged an Oscar playing a celebrated academic with early-onset Alzheimer’s in Still Alice, much is made here of Anthony’s love of opera and the range of his knowledge, as if the height from which he falls somehow makes his illness more tragic (it doesn’t). Yet neither of these awards-feted productions comes close to matching Natalie Erika James’s underrated Australian masterpiece Relic, a heartbreaking horror film that features the best (and most affecting) screen depiction of Alzheimer’s I have ever seen.

Elsewhere, dripping taps and refractive prisms (into which Colman stares pointedly) offer somewhat clunky visual metaphors, capped off by the fragmented face of a vast Igor Mitoraj sculpture, driving the point home. For all its apparent structural complexities, The Father is not quite as mysterious as its creators would have us believe.