by George Wolf
How much you’re moved by The Father will likely depend on how you see the central narrative device employed by director/co-writer Florian Zeller.
Is it a gimmick that cheapens the very subject he’s digging into, or is it an effective – even logical – new frame for a familiar picture?
Anthony Hopkins and Olivia Colman star as father and daughter Anthony and Anne. Now, with these Oscar winners as your leads, your device could be the mail-in offer from the back of a cereal box and it would most likely be riveting, but Zeller has more lofty ambitions.
Anthony’s memory is fading fast, forcing Anne to navigate his mood swings and growing combativeness while she looks for an in-home caregiver who can handle him. Young Laura (Imogen Poots) looks promising, but Anthony’s initial charm at their meeting gives way to insults and accusations about a plan to force him from his well-appointed flat.
But is it his flat? And who is the man in the living room (Mark Gatiss) who says he lives there?
Is Anne really planning to move to Paris with a new boyfriend, or is she still married to the impatient and angry Paul (Rufus Sewell)? And just who is that other woman who looks like Anne (Olivia Williams)? Zeller adapts his own stage play with a profound intimacy that feeds the intentional confusion.
In the last several years, movies such as Away From Her and Amour have mined their greatness through the effect of dementia on the longtime spouse of the afflicted.
But here, not only does Zeller make a sympathetic pivot to the adult child of an ailing parent, but his chamber piece finds its greatest resonance through the heartbreaking empathy that comes from giving us Anthony’s point of view.
And even if the whole affair does strike you as gimmicky, the transcendent heights hit by Hopkins and Colman (and indeed, the entire ensemble) make spending time with The Father more than worthwhile.
As artistic as it is nuanced, as lyrical as it is devastating, it’s a film with not only something to say, but a welcome new approach to saying it.