One rarely hears the adjective “Pinteresque” any more but it came surging to mind as I watched The Father. The edginess of Harold Pinter’s plays owed much to the way he incorporated elements of the Theatre of the Absurd (to use Martin Esslin’s wellknown term), without ever losing touch with plausible reality. In adapting his own play in collaboration with Christopher Hampton, director Florian Zeller provides many moments when we feel as if we’ve fallen down the rabbit hole without noticing, even though almost every scene takes place within a single London apartment.
The black hole into which we keep stumbling is Anthony Hopkins’s mind as he struggles with creeping dementia. Not only does Hopkins’s character share the same name – Anthony, he’s the same age as the actor. It must have been an unnerving part to play.
Zeller doesn’t ease us into an understanding of Anthony’s condition. When we meet the old man he appears to be a sprightly octogenarian, enjoying his retirement with a blast of Purcell on the stereo. His daughter, Anne (Olivia Colman), comes visiting and tells him she has engaged a new carer to look after him. Apparently he was horrible to the previous incumbent who has refused to return.
For Anthony it’s outrageous to even suggest that he needs a carer. He’s healthy, and perfectly happy by himself. However he quickly changes his tune when Anne tells him she’s met someone and is going to relocate to Paris. First he is contemptuous: “You? You mean a man?!” Then it’s: “You’re abandoning me!” and so on. Within a moment the mask of bravura slips, to be replaced by bitterness and wheedling self-pity.
We see Anthony as proud and slightly unstable, with no obvious physical infirmities, but with each scene the picture becomes more complicated. When Anthony emerges from his bedroom he finds a strange man sitting in the lounge, making himself at home. He says he’s Paul, Anne’s husband. Although this rings no bells it puts Anthony in a tricky position. Does Paul know about Anne’s plans to run off to Paris? When the subject does get raised, Paul tells him it’s all nonsense.
The next morning Anthony gets a visit from a strange woman (Olivia Williams), who says she’s Anne. By this point we’re as confused as Anthony. When another man appears (Rufus Sewell), who seems to be just as much at home as the previous one, and who also claims to be Paul, the confusion is complete.
Soon the first Anne is back, bringing the new carer, Laura, (Imogen Poots, who seems to be in everything lately). As if forgetting he refused to have a carer, Anthony turns on the charm, telling Laura he used to be a dancer, although he was really an engineer. He pays her the supreme compliment of saying she reminds him of his other daughter, Catherine, with whom he has amazing chemistry – much better than with tiresome Anne.
And yet, in what is possibly the most remarkable scene in the film – and the most skilful piece of acting – Anthony suddenly drops the joking, flirtatious stuff and becomes violently angry. Laura can see the challenge she’s facing but she pushes on regardless.
Little by little Anthony is coming apart at the seams. Zeller signals the old man’s decline by small details and repetitions. The most notable is the watch Anthony keeps losing. His best explanation is that the previous carer must have stolen it, but it appears he left it in a hiding place and then forgot about it. The missing watch becomes a symbol of Anthony’s increasingly disjointed sense of time as he fails to distinguish between past and present, perhaps between morning and evening.
He is no longer certain about which Anne is really his daughter, and which Paul is – or was – her husband, but he’s adamant that he will never be leaving his apartment, even if his scheming relatives think they can put him away in a home. The only problem is that he’s been told, quite early in the film, that he has already left his apartment and is living at his daughter’s place. Rather than being the king of his castle it seems that Anthony might be nothing more than a difficult house guest who is driving his hosts to distraction.
In this hall of distorting mirrors Zeller denies us a stable platform where we can stand and make sense of what’s really happening in Anthony’s life. Because every mention of the other daughter is met with silence we may assume Catherine is dead. We can suspect that Anthony’s presence in Anne’s apartment may have help destroy her marriage, but we can’t be sure which Paul is the actual husband. Neither can we account for the second Anne, not until the very end of the movie. Even a chicken dinner becomes a complex piece of algebrae.
The versatile Olivia Colman puts in an excellent performance as the daughter caught between love for her father, a sense of filial duty, and sheer exasperation. As Anthony’s derangement grows, all our sympathies lie with Anne. Although we may feel pity for Anthony one suspects that even in his prime he would have been a selfish, egotistical proposition. Dementia appears to have isolated those traits, setting them free from the checks imposed by rational thought.
I’ve only known people who have succumbed to dementia by a much gentler route: reverting to childhood, singing songs, or simply looking sadly at loved ones whose names can no longer be located. But there’s something monstrous about Hopkins’s Anthony, making The Father seem like a horror movie rather than a family drama. It’s not a tale of menace from beyond the grave, but of a slow, murderous descent into chaos that drags down everyone who gets too close.
Directed by Florian Zeller
Written by Christopher Hampton & Florian Zeller, after a play by Florian Teller
Starring Anthony Hopkins, Olivia Colman, Olivia Williams, Mark Gatiss, Imogen Poots, Rufus Sewell
UK/France, rated M, 97 mins
Published in the Australian Financial Review, 3 April, 2021