The Father: Hopkins Deserved His Oscar




Lionsgate/Sony Classics, 97 minutes, PG-13 (language, trauma)




One wonders why the Academy Awards bothered to air, given that the Covid pandemic kept most people out of movie theaters. Very few have seen The Father, so perhaps you are curious whether veteran British actor Sir Anthony Hopkins deserved a Best Actor Oscar. The answer is, yes, absolutely. The late Chadwick Boseman, a superb actor, was a sentimental favorite for Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom. I’ve not yet seen that film, but I’m sure Boseman sparkled. That said, performances such as Hopkins’ are rare and deserve to be honored.


The Father is powerful and moving. Hopkins plays Anthony, an elderly man whose grasp on reality is deteriorating. Although he has lived in an apartment owned by his daughter Anne (Olivia Colman) for many years, he believes it’s the other way around. That’s the least of his issues. Sometimes he thinks Anne is married to Paul or Bill, though there are two men he “sees” as Anne’s husband (Rufus Sewell, Mark Gatiss), and sometimes he thinks she’s abandoning him to move to Paris with someone named James. There are moments in which he sees a caregiver named Laura (Imogen Potts) as his youngest daughter Lucy, and others in which he’s annoyed by Laura and insists, rather rudely, that he doesn’t need her and she should get out of his apartment. Or perhaps Laura is another person altogether (Olivia Williams), or maybe she’s Anne or a nurse named Catherine.


The Father is, sadly, a spot-on portrayal of someone with dementia. It is a maddening and heart-wrenching condition. When Anthony is lucid, he is a charming crank. When he first meets Laura, he tells her he was once a professional tap dancer and snaps off a sample for her amusement. Anne is astounded, as her father was actually an engineer! In his more confused moments, Anthony is convinced Paul or Bill are hurting him, or he can’t work out why the corridor to his apartment opens onto a hospital corridor.


Director Florian Zeller originally wrote The Father as a stage play, which would have been a fine format for the story. As a movie, The Father doesn’t venture out of the apartment very much, which also makes sense. After all, Anthony’s world is becoming increasingly claustrophobic. Full credit, though, to Zeller, because he keeps his audience as much in the dark as Anthony. We are never entirely certain which rooms actually exist and which ones are constructs inside of Anthony’s muddled mind. One brief flash on Lucy is probably the tip off of why she never visits her father, but we can’t even be sure of that. Nor can we tell with 100% certainty if Anne is married, separated, divorced, or was never married at all. In essence, Zeller positions us on ground that shifts as often as Anthony’s.


Hopkins is a brilliant illusionist. When he beguiles, are we seeing Anthony before his center began to crumble, or is it merely another fabricated fantasy room? When he rages, is his that of someone forced to act against his own will, or is it deeper internal outburst against what a small slice of him recognizes as his selfhood eroding? Or perhaps something even more primal, like naked fear?


Colman is equally impressive. As some of you know, my mother died from Alzheimer’s. Colman captures the rollercoaster of emotions that come from trying to care for someone whose mental marbles have escaped from the bag and are rolling toward the storm drain. Even the deepest love for another is challenged if that person repeats things like a programed talking doll and changes moods in the middle of a sentence, yet occasionally seems just enough like the genuine self to offer false hope. Colman–who was nominated for a Best Supporting Actress Oscar*–plays Anne as one who, in her own way, is just as much at sea as her father.  


The Father is a classic ‘tough’ film and joins the ranks of others like Away from Her, Still Alice, and Amour that have dealt with dementia. In my mind, Amour remains the best of the lot, but Hopkins deeply deserves the acting hardware Emmanuelle Riva should have won in 2012. The Father is a film you might tell yourself you don’t wish to see. That’s exactly why you should.


Rob Weir


* Youn Yuh-jung won the 2021 Best Supporting Actress this year. Colman who as Best Actress in 2019 for The Favourite.

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