The Father Review: A Disorienting Descent

Nominated for Best Picture at the 93rd Academy Awards, The Father bends the mind in spectacular fashion. Starring Anthony Hopkins and Olivia Colman, a man named Anthony must come to terms with his deteriorating mental health. The real question is, will he ever get the chance?

The Father Review: A Disorienting Descent Cover

A man named Anthony is getting older. Despite the best wishes of his daughter, he finds that help is of no benefit to him. Why accept the aid of others when he’s perfectly well off on his own? The Father is a simple story: one man will come face to face with the slow deterioration of his mind, and reality will shift with every unconscious blink.

Starring Anthony Hopkins and Olivia Colman among others, and directed by Florian Zeller, the film is one of eight nominees for the upcoming Academy Awards ceremony for Best Picture. My own curiosity with the nominees available, The Father was one film that intrigued me more than others. So fundamentally different from others in that it’s so straightforward, bereft of a sharp, political undertone. More than anything, it’s the emotional psychology behind a man so accustomed to structure and order dealing with the inevitable effects of aging. Despite nothing groundbreaking or technically marvelous, the film stands toe-to-toe with others through execution alone.

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THE FATHER | Official Trailer (2020)

Story – A Man Without a Home

To relay the story of The Father would be suspect to the tattered remains of star Anthony’s (Anthony Hopkins) mind. A daughter, Anne (Olivia Colman), cares for him in his later years, which may or may not impact her own personal life. Some reasonable foundations are established—he lives in a flat, he has trouble with caretakers, he likes his watch, etc. These small details end up being the only common links to an otherwise chaotically confounding capturing of mental failure. All the viewer can do is watch and decide, just as Anthony does, what is and isn’t real.

Unreliable narrators are a common theme in stories involving a psychological twist or theme. Where it differs here is that while Anthony is not narrating, the viewer follows his perception and views the story through it. Very rarely does it deviate from this course, where Anne becomes the focal point outside of Anthony’s awareness, which hints at some continuous timeline that’s otherwise feasible. The human mind is often one that thrives on repetition and emotion, hence why these parallels tend to come up often at what seems like random. Such absurdity makes the most of watching the fragmented story unfold.

Even Colman can't fathom it.

Even Colman can’t fathom it.

A core strength of this narrative is the way it subtly injects the personality and history of Anthony’s character within it. This seems less of a portrait of reality as it is a portrait of a fleeting subconscious. Such details as the items that Anthony holds dear are sprinkled within ensuing scenes and manipulated as things change tone. Loss permeates throughout; no hesitation comes even in times most dire and desperate. Like a wall being battered continuously, the integrity of his mental fortitude weakens until it eventually can’t hold. Such an evocative spiral into despair is captured brilliantly as the viewer’s own mind dissects the material.

What makes the story not quite as spurring for me is that the emotional foundation seems tailored to a certain extent. Passionate as it is, there exists a sort of buffer between I and the characters where while I can sympathize, empathy is a little tougher. Perhaps the simplistic approach doesn’t quite provide the same emotional feedback when it all comes to a head. Spending most of the time in mental strangulation may make for invigorating analysis, though it may leave a little to be desired by film’s end.

It's me, looking for my heart by the credit sequence.

It’s me, looking for my heart by the credit sequence.

The Father is actually based on a 2014 play penned by director Florian Zeller, titled “Le Père.” With this context, the structure of the film does seem evocative of such. Relatively few locations, an emphasis on characters and their interactions; it’s something different from the general cinema fare. As stated previously, the straightforward nature makes the most of its material in this fashion.

Characters & Performances – Who Do You Think You Are?

Major names present here are Anthony Hopkins and Olivia Colman, who are used extensively in the promotional material. Both are Academy Award-winning performers, so their publicity is not surprising. Otherwise, notable names include Mark Gatiss, Rufus Sewell, Michelle Williams, and Imogen Poots. Like the settings, the cast list is fairly small, making use of every character that appears onscreen. Dependent on their usage within a given situation, their performances tend to vary ever so slightly.

Hopkins's varies greatly.

Hopkins’s varies greatly.

There remains one constant: Anthony is the father, Anne is the daughter. Hopkins manages to convey every bit of the proud, independent man of the household that would be expected of a man his age. Colman portrays the expected caretaker, dealing with the fallback of a continuously strenuous situation with her father’s health. While I would argue neither have a screen-stealing persona to them generally, specific scenes give rise to the strength of their profession. Anthony can be terribly cruel, with his passion for independence ravaging those in his wake. Anne, unable to really combat him due to his state, can only bear the pressure of his ensuing madness.

Others have a bit of an interesting aspect to consider. From seeing the scenes through Anthony’s viewpoint, some characters are bound to be somewhat off. Their personalities, performances, and even existence are shaped in some fashion by whatever figment of memory Anthony holds onto. As such, a layer of discomfort settles behind every smile, every warm greeting, and each interpretation of recognition. Hopkins and Colman have the duty to put on brave faces; all others go with the flow of an unconventional plot progression.

Sometimes it’s easier to praise performances for being so realistic that there’s nothing to comment on. Sure, there are performances abound where one character takes to the screen and rattles off poetry in a dramatic tone, but that isn’t the focus here. It’s quietly saddening, embodied by the fearful stammering of a man on the cusp of realizing his own doom, just out of reach of enlightenment. The best compliment I can provide is that everyone is as realistic, uncanny, or oblivious as they need to be. It serves to match the overall somber tone.

Sometimes people fight over tone.

Sometimes people fight over tone.

Pacing – Straightforward and Back Again

It’s somewhat difficult to gauge just how formulated the pacing of this is, given the already cryptic nature of the plot. Whatever progress one feels is made could be usurped in the very next scene, pulling and turning the viewer at its whim. The Father does not make things easy to follow along with, which may deter those looking for more streamlined storytelling. Even so, it’s part of the finesse to take things as they are.

Given the relatively short runtime, this is something that could be considered a snack-sized full-course meal. Repeated watches could benefit those who only managed to understand the themes present near the end, having them miss specific cues earlier on. I wouldn’t say it’s particularly fast, but given the nature of the film and the disillusioned lead, it’s easy to lose track of things, if not time.

Editing – Wait, What Was That Again?

To be frank, if there were any special indication of phenomenal editing, I did not note it. More than anything, it seems this aspect of filmmaking gets somewhat lost in the otherwise full package of identifiable adjectives.

What does end up being notable are the timing of cuts, particularly within the more chaotic situations. Close-ups and zooms on the realization of fact (or fiction) by Anthony (or occasionally others) end up emphasizing the further decline into madness. Much like its theater origins, many shots are framed with the whole of a single character in view, rarely conveying volume. Almost as though to further isolate Anthony from what could be true reality. It’s a nice, subtle touch to an otherwise remarkably standard viewing.

Quiet contemplation.

Quiet contemplation.

Cinematography & Sound – It’s All His Flat

Not everything will be as it seems, especially after the initial scene. Given the limited locations, one will be accustomed to seeing Anthony and Anne in their flat. Or maybe it’s his flat? A closed-in space with very little change, with pieces and items randomly going missing. Generally quiet and unassuming, it’s not the sort of Marvel magic some may be accustomed to.

In theme with the disorienting make-up of the plot structure, scenes tend to play out without much rhyme or reason. Above all, it takes place in what Anthony knows to be his flat. His kingdom, his palace—yet the pieces are jittering out of place, slowly but surely. Nothing so apparent occurs that would seem out of place, at least not initially. The effects of the plot end up shaping the way the viewer sees this home. Is it a safe haven or a prison? Do the recurrent situations done from different angles and perspectives provide more clarity or less? Half the fun of The Father comes with deciding how much of the setting changes along with Anthony’s psyche.

So quiet, indeed. If there is any sort of soundtrack attributed to this film, I don’t recall it. What stays in my mind are the awkward silences, the lingering toxicity as lines are spit that lead to mental turmoil. No patronizing tunes to lull the audience into any sort of mood. Anyone can interpret it as they see fit, with only the strength of the performances as the crutch. There is no buffer in terms of audio to defend oneself from whatever may occur. Just time ticking downward, effectively unnerving and unflinching.

The Father does everything it needs to do to provide a compelling and depressing tale of a man who wants control, yet can no longer handle it. Although the emotional purposes of its plot may end up buried by its technical prowess, it's little more than a blunt end to an otherwise effective cinematic tool. Anthony Hopkins and Olivia Colman are both nominated for awards for this film—it would not disappoint me to see them win. Nor would it dampen my spirits to see this overall excellent film take home the most prestigious award of all: profi—er, Best Picture.
  • Performances so good, it evokes complete realism (when suitable)
  • Intriguing, mind-bending execution of its mental themes
  • Great use of silence and subtly unnerving audio elements
  • Invigorating portrayal of ensuing dementia
  • Not quite as emotionally resonant as it could be

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