Florian Zeller’s The Father considers the slide into oblivion
“Pray, do not mock me: I am a very foolish fond old man, fourscore and upward, not an hour more or less; and, to deal plainly, I fear I am not in my perfect mind.” Anthony Hopkins spoke those words as King Lear in 1986 and again in 2018, and he voices the sentiment in different words, or with no words at all, in the devastating drama The Father. Hopkins plays Anthony, an aging Englishman who can no longer make the world stay still so that he can get his bearings. The people in his life keep changing appearance. So does his flat, which is sometimes his daughter’s flat. The movie, directed and cowritten by Florian Zeller from his play, uses subtle cinematic techniques to keep us as disoriented as Anthony is. We share his sense of being unmoored, grasping at any solidity that presents itself before it and he recede into nonsense.
The Father is not as incoherent as I’ve perhaps made it sound. The style is sturdy and sensible; it doesn’t lurch into frenzy or melodramatic notions of what mental debility feels like from the inside. Anthony is, after all, quite convinced that he’s perfectly sound of mind and that everyone else, for their own dark reasons, has conspired to throw difficulties in his path. So when the inconsistencies crack the narrative — when Anthony’s daughter Anne leaves, played by Olivia Colman, and then returns played by Olivia Williams — the style remains a steady flow of information that, though neatly presented, is unacceptable to Anthony. Who is this, now? Anne? You’re not Anne. This switcheroo happens with other characters, and Williams also turns up in two other roles.
The horror of this situation is twofold: Anthony’s existential anguish over losing everything he is, and Anne’s fury and heartbreak over being erased from her father’s memory. Both Hopkins and Colman beautifully convey the nightmare of a disease that steals identity not only from its host but from everyone in his support system. The film sticks diligently to its grim mode of a confounding reality attacking and retreating. Every scene is there to establish Anthony’s decline. It reminded me of some of David Cronenberg’s more interiorized psychodramas like Dead Ringers, Spider, even Naked Lunch to the extent that what the protagonist is perceiving is not always to be trusted. We are locked in his disintegrating perceptions for ninety-plus minutes; even in scenes when Anthony isn’t around yet, and Anne is talking to her husband/not husband (played alternately by Mark Gatiss and Rufus Sewell), we feel we’re seeing what Anthony is overhearing but misunderstanding, or imagining but through his own filter. Eventually we come to realize that the story is about no more or less than the unreliability of any perception. Anthony is all of us, blinking slowly at new people or missing objects while holding firm to his belief that his antennae are working perfectly.
A lot of things in Anthony’s shifting sense of himself can be interrogated or discussed, such as his insistence that he used to be a tap dancer, while elsewhere agreeing that he was an engineer. Well, which is it? Florian Zeller, along with screenplay collaborator Christopher Hampton, plants conflicting details and, within the tight and conventional confines of his camera blocking, refuses to give us ground beneath our feet. Anthony has, or had, another daughter Lucy, who hasn’t come to see him in some time; the shards of data we get — which, of course, could themselves be suspect — indicate that Lucy was killed in an accident. It’s certainly open to interpretation.
Hopkins makes Anthony prickly and ungovernable, a modern-day Lear raging against the storm in his own head. Ultimately, as in Wit (with Emma Thompson’s least-seen great performance), Anthony — as will we all — comes full circle into whimpering infancy. If we shed a tear, we do so not for him but for ourselves. The long, intolerable slide into oblivion — the immovable arc of the universe. Sometimes a story like this gets told with a spoonful of genre sugar; a lot of science fiction, for instance, runs on speculation about identity and humanity. So the tale is told sidewise, to spare the viewer a direct hit of pain. The Father stays within our unremarkable reality, a world we recognize, until we no longer do.