‘The Father’ Will Break Your Heart

Dementia film features Anthony Hopkins in top form

By Todd Hill

Olivia Colman and Anthony Hopkins star in “The Father,” which earned Hopkins his second Oscar (for Best Actor), on six nominations. Photo courtesy of Sony Pictures Classics

(4 stars out of 5)

For some two decades now, we’ve been treated — if that’s the word — to several superlative films about dementia.

This year’s “The Father,” nominated for an Academy Award for Best Picture and starring Anthony Hopkins, joins a sterling list of dementia-themed movies that includes “Iris” (2001), “Away From Her” (2007) and “Still Alice” (2014), among others. A strong argument can be made that “The Father” is the best of bunch.

Personally, I’m just looking forward to the day when films like this can be considered period pieces, to that day when the cause of Alzheimer’s, the most common disease linked to dementia, is finally found. I yearn for that moment because I feel dementia may be just about the worst way there is to die, except for perhaps being burned alive at the stake. And I say that only because I’ve seen all the major dementia movies, and yes, I think “The Father” may be the strongest of all of them.

I’ve nothing negative to say about the acting abilities of Judi Dench (“Iris”), Julie Christie (“Away From Her”) or Julianne Moore (“Still Alice”), or the directors of any of those earlier efforts, but Hopkins goes places with his character — a seemingly urbane Londoner named Anthony — that those before did not or could not.

I was dreading watching “The Father,” the last of 2021’s eight Best Picture nominees that I needed to track down, for the same reasons anyone puts off sitting through a movie that promises to be emotionally devastating. Did I really want to watch Anthony Hopkins play someone who loses control of his bodily functions, or worse? Of course not, but “The Father,” which is based on the director’s play, has loftier ambitions than abject, end-of-life despair (I’m really persuading you to catch this film, aren’t I?).

For one, Anthony — the character and presumably not the actor — is too proud, and eventually defiant, to let dementia destroy his life. Of course, everyone has a breaking point, and when Hopkins’ character reaches his, at the end of the film, the spectacle is just as heartbreaking as we likely expected it would be. It’s an acceptance of nothing less, in a sense, than a living death.

Anthony’s daughter, Anne, is portrayed by Olivia Colman, except when she’s portrayed by someone else, while Rufus Sewell plays her husband, although it wasn’t clear to me until the end of the movie, if then, whether Anne has a husband or had one.

Roughly half the film is told from the point of view of Anne, and while Colman’s performance is predictably solid, the role hits notes that are familiar to a storyline like this one. Crucially, meanwhile, the other half of “The Father” is brought to us from the perspective of Anthony, in all its confusion and befuddlement. Time plays tricks on us, the viewers, just as it does in the world Anthony inhabits. We’re never quite sure of what we’re seeing, or even who.

Time leaps ahead, or backtracks and sneaks up on itself. Conversations between characters end precisely where they began. A chicken dinner, the same chicken dinner, is prepared three or four times in the course of the movie, although I remember it being served only once. And it’s this very clever screenwriting, more than the fine acting of Hopkins or the tormented staring into space of Colman’s Anne, that allows us to see just how cruel dementia can be to everyone affected by it.

Nobody dies in “The Father,” but then nobody has to. While we’re given glimpses of the man Anthony once was, occasionally witty and charming, and then petty and defensive, he ultimately becomes just another patient in a room with a window and a door.

Lost in his mind as he is, Anthony never loses his awareness of what appears to be happening to him. And he’s bright enough to express this awareness evocatively, likening his state at one point to that of a tree losing its leaves. But no amount of concentration or focus or will can prevent that awareness from rising into the air and disappearing like smoke.

1 hour and 37 minutes. Rated PG-13 for some strong language, and thematic material. Debuted March 26, 2021 on PVOD.

Trailer: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=4TZb7YfK-JI

Todd Hill is a former journalist with 30 years of experience, much of it in film criticism, who misses neither journalism nor the film beat. For his longer articles on all the Academy Award Best Picture nominees, visit Oscar Bait, or https://medium.com/oscar-bait.

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Todd Hill is a former journalist with 30 years of experience, much of it in film criticism, who misses neither journalism nor the film beat.