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Film Review: “The Father” Offers Style Without Much Substance

Written by: Christopher Llewellyn Reed | March 26th, 2021

Film poster: “The Father”

The Father (Florian Zeller, 2020) 2 out of 4 stars.

Filled with excellent performances from all involved, Florian Zeller’s The Father, adapted from his own eponymous stage play, nevertheless fails to rise above its one-note premise. Though there are occasional moments of narrative inspiration in this study of an old man suffering from Alzheimer’s, nothing elevates the material beyond the obvious. Early hints at alternative realities merely cycle back to the main conceit, and while the examination of dementia is creatively realized, it never probes beyond the surface. Anthony Hopkins (The Two Popes) and Olivia Colman (The Favourite) may each be at the top of their actorly game here, but they both deserve better material.

The first half proves intriguing, however. We meet elderly Anthony (Hopkins) as his daughter Anne (Colman) stops by, interrupting his relaxing session with opera music on headphones. He appears a bit confused when she confronts him over an apparently bad incident with a nurse, who has now left. His dementia further manifests itself when he claims said nurse stole a watch, which Anne is able to find. Anthony becomes even more upset when Anne informs him she is leaving London for life with a man in Paris. So far, so clear, at least to us.

l-r: Anthony Hopkins and Olivia Colman inTHE FATHER ©Sony Pictures Classics

But then, after she leaves, Anthony finds himself further undone when he discovers a stranger (Mark Gatiss, Christopher Robin) in his flat. He says his name is Paul and that he lives there, too. Is he gaslighting an old man to swindle him out of his home? It seems that way, especially when a new woman (Olivia Williams, Altar), walks in and claims to be Anne. Perhaps they are working together as a pair of con artists. This turns out not to be the case, since soon the real Anne returns, the other vanishing. And then Anne’s real husband (Rufus Sewell, Amazon’s The Man in the High Castle), also named Paul, arrives. Clearly, what is fact, fiction and fantasy are all ajumble in poor Anthony’s deteriorating brain.

Once we understand this, the movie becomes an exercise in cycling through the same material in as many different ways as it can. There is some fascination in this approach, but no mystery. Even when an additional character, a potential caregiver (Imogen Poots, Vivarium), shows up, briefly enlivening those scenes, we can’t escape the narrative death spiral of evident sameness hidden under clever mise-en-scène.

Olivia Colman inTHE FATHER ©Sony Pictures Classics

And Zeller and company clearly have skill. The problems lie not in the direction, but in the script. Given the lack of nuance in the overall arc, the net result feels a bit like torture porn, the camera moving into an anguished close-up on Hopkins’ face as the world becomes ever more opaque. If the point is to inflict pain with little reward, with little prior emotional development to earn the big ending moment, then Zeller succeeds. If, on the other hand, the goal is to do more than simply present the horrors of encroaching senility, The Father, despite flashes of creativity, is a fail.

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Christopher Llewellyn Reed is a film critic, filmmaker, and educator. A member of the Washington DC Area Film Critics Association (WAFCA) and a Rotten Tomatoes-approved film critic, he is Managing Editor at Film Festival Today; lead film critic at Hammer to Nail; formerly the host of the award-winning Reel Talk with Christopher Llewellyn Reed, from Dragon Digital Media; and the author of Film Editing: Theory and Practice. In addition, he is a former cohost of The Fog of Truth, a podcast devoted to documentary cinema.

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