by Hope Madden
Two years ago, Florian Zeller reimagined how film could represent perspective, turning his play The Father into a devastating meditation on helplessness, loss and love. Once again Zeller works with Christopher Hampton, this time to adapt the third in his trilogy of stage plays to examine family conflict, The Son.
Hugh Jackman stars as Peter, a dashing and successful lawyer with a lovely young wife (Vanessa Kirby) and a cherubic infant son. He also has a harried ex-wife named Kate (Laura Dern) and a teenage son named Nicholas (Zen McGrath), both of whom feel abandoned by him.
We meet Kate at Peter’s high-high-end doorway. He’s clearly not thrilled to see her – “You can’t just show up here unannounced like this!” – but she’s at her wit’s end. There’s something wrong with Nicholas.
Well, here’s Peter to the rescue. And in the ensuing two hours we learn that, even though appearances suggest that ol’ Pete has it all under control, he does not. No one does.
The dynamic between Kirby and McGrath becomes the most intriguing pairing as neither character is positioned to be fully villain or hero. Both are at odds – with each other, with Peter, with Kate – and yet both make genuine, if thwarted, attempts to bond.
As is her way, Kirby digs to find richness and complexity in a character with limited screen time. Dern is likewise excellent – as is her way. But the film lives and dies with Jackman and McGrath.
Zeller and Hampton’s script does McGrath no favors and he struggles mightily to find a balance between whining entitlement and genuine suffering.
Jackman’s a little bit by the numbers here. Zeller allows the clean, slick surfaces of his home and office and his elegant, never-mussed wardrobe to speak more loudly than they should, stifling a nuanced characterization. Jackman tries, and moments where Peter’s vanity seeps through his “perfect father” demeanor are welcome. But Zeller’s direction is obvious, and the writing wallows more than it enlightens.
Where The Father was a transcendent experience that dared to ask viewers to see as a man with Alzheimer’s sees, The Son takes no such daring leap. Its insights are stale, its twists manipulative. The film delivers a classy melodrama, but nothing more.