Review: The Father — Movies for the Rest of Us with Bill Newcott

Bill Newcott looks at Anthony Hopkins and Olivia Colman's latest performances.

Anthony Hopkins and Olivia Colman in a scene from The Father

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The Father

⭐ ⭐ ⭐ ⭐ ⭐

Rating: PG-13

Run Time: 1 hour 37 minutes

Stars: Anthony Hopkins, Olivia Colman, Rufus Sewell, Imogen Poots

Writers: Christopher Hampton, based on Florian Zeller’s play

Director: Florian Zeller

Anthony Hopkins is scary. And I don’t mean as in Hannibal Lecter scary. I mean as in: How can an actor be 83, yet continue to unleash performances that can legitimately be called career-defining?

Yet here he is — three years after contributing the most nuanced King Lear of his generation, two years after embodying today’s crossroads of Christianity in The Two Popes — plunging into the tortured, tangled psyche of a man refusing to surrender to the ravages of dementia in The Father.

Hopkins plays Anthony — and, yes, it is a bit disconcerting to hear characters calling this tragically declining man by the actor’s real name. Anthony lives in a lovingly appointed London flat. He’s been there for decades — or has he? Is this the apartment he shared with his late, beloved wife? Or does he live with his daughter Anne (Oscar winner Olivia Coleman), the stoic but sad woman who dotes over him with misty-eyed resolve?

And what about Anne? Is she content to fuss over Anthony indefinitely? Or is she planning to put him away in a home so she can go live in Paris with her husband Paul (Rufus Sewell), who is either a patient host or a physically abusive monster?

Even more perplexing for Anthony: Why does Anne seem to keep changing, as if she is being played by two different women?

The mysteries swirl in the brain of Anthony, who keeps attempting to apply his substantial intellect to deciphering the uncertainties about him. I can think of no other actor who could so thoroughly accomplish the task of simultaneously conjuring up bull-like strength and childlike vulnerability. Anthony has not lost a smidgen of his intellect and observational powers, but the world’s external signals are short circuiting in his head, snapping and sparking wildly as he flails about trying to make sense of his observed universe.

Hopkins’s Anthony can be graciously kind and unconscionably cruel. He can be strikingly clear-headed and woefully befuddled. And in the hands of one of the greatest screen actors of this or any other era, Anthony remains utterly accessible to the audience, never once losing us in the labyrinth of his mind even as he himself stumbles into the gathering darkness.

In the hands of just about any other actor, the role of Anne could be a thankless one, little more than a sounding board for Hopkins’s performance. But Colman — whose royal bearing anchored The Favourite and TV’s The Crown — is the beating heart of The Father. So invested is Colman in the pair’s scenes that even when she is absent from the screen — even when Anthony sees her as someone else — the memory of Anne’s devotion to her dad infuses every frame.

In one blood-freezing scene, Anne is introducing Anthony to Laura (Imogen Poots), a young woman who’s been hired as his next in-home companion (Or is she? Because the film is filtered through Anthony’s perceptions, we’re never quite sure if people really are who we think we’ve been told they are). At first Anthony is cordial, then friendly, then ecstatic. Soon he’s charming Laura with an awkward tap dance. But as the young woman’s delight grows, so does Anne’s trepidation — and soon we see why: With whiplash-inducing suddenness, Anthony turns on Laura, spitting invective and paranoia-fueled insults. It is as horrifying a moment as I have witnessed in a movie.

For his first English language film, French director Florian Zeller is working from a script by Oscar winner Christopher Hampton (Dangerous Liaisons) — adapted from a play that Zeller himself wrote. Primarily a one-set piece, The Father shows its stage roots — yet through clever editing, dazzling tracking shots, and old-fashioned sleight-of-hand, Zeller creates a thoroughly filmic experience.

“There’s something funny going on,” Anthony mutters more than once. Of course, there’s nothing funny here at all — but there is the singular joy of allowing a master of his craft to render you helplessly enthralled.

Featured image: Olivia Colman and Anthony Hopkins in The Father (Sony Pictures Classics)

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