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Audrey Kupferberg: The Father

Audrey inspects a film
Audrey Kupferberg

The Father, starring Anthony Hopkins and Olivia Colman, is the first film to be written and directed by acclaimed playwright Florian Zeller. The screenplay was co-written by Zeller with Christopher Hampton. The film has had a long list of major award nominations, and Zeller and Hampton won Oscars for Best Adapted Screenplay. Anthony Hopkins won the Oscar for Best Performance by an Actor in a Leading Role. It is a role written especially for him by Zeller. Critics have rated it a gem, and mature viewers are simply blown away by its explosive theme, powerful acting, and superb script.

Hopkins plays the title role of Anthony, an aging man of some education and means who is physically hardy but falling rapidly into dementia. Much of what unfolds is seen through his ailing mind. His reality has been played with.

During the course of the film, Anthony often interacts with his adult daughter, Anne, seemingly in his home, or is it her home, and elsewhere. There are brief scenes with Anne’s husband and a woman who has been brought in to tend to Anthony’s needs.

These characters form a tight potent ensemble. Anthony’s dialog with Anne is at times loving but more often shamefully mean. Anne takes care of her father, and he rewards her by favoring a sister who is not there. At times, he expresses to Anne how put-upon he feels by her actions. And we, viewing the situation from a bit of distance, see how put-upon Anne is feeling.

Thorny conversation, a style of communication which thrives in the works of Florian Zeller, is key to the strength of his writings. In such intricately-fashioned plays as The Father, The Son The Mother, and The Height of the Storm, the situations and deep emotions are tied to the dialog. If you miss a phrase or two, you might form a disconnect with the play.

And so, with Zeller as a novice film director, the significant conversations in The Father could have been lost or paled by his inexperience with the camera. But they were not. Zeller uses close-ups and fairly tight compositions of small ensembles of characters to bring out the details in each sequence.

The Father evolves as a quirky character study, an analysis of a dementia patient’s reality. Our reality is firm, but we are watching what appears to be an ever-changing parade of realities in the movie. The father’s kind words change to cruelties. The characters even change from one actor to another. The sets appear transformed. Which circumstances are real? Dementia is a wicked and painful disease. Those around the victim are stunned and helpless to understand. The victim is terrified and confused. Reality has failed all concerned.

Watching The Father is a difficult experience. I kept pausing the film to adjust my breathing. Any excuse to flee the world in which these characters are stuck… I used the bathroom a couple times. I checked the laundry in the dryer.

Holding on to each other as a family while one member fades into disorientation doesn’t help any of these characters. Their situation appears to bring Anne and her husband to misery, and still the father cannot curb his behavior. The Father isn’t a drama about aging; it is a tragedy about an unseen illness which can accompany aging.

As Zeller begins production on his next project, a filmization of The Son, viewers will hope for another dazzling film about a family in trouble.

Audrey Kupferberg is a film and video archivist and appraiser. She is lecturer emeritus and the former director of Film Studies at the University at Albany and co-authored several entertainment biographies with her husband and creative partner, Rob Edelman.

The views expressed by commentators are solely those of the authors. They do not necessarily reflect the views of this station or its management.

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