Anthony is a retired engineer who has trouble with his watch. Maybe he can’t remember where he put it. Maybe his caregiver stole it from him. He’s disoriented when he’s in the former frame of mind, angry in the latter.
The watch is time, and as played with great sensitivity by Anthony Hopkins, the old man is alternately confused, frustrated, and rageful about his inability to keep track of it. He’s slipping around various stages of his life, unable to distinguish present from past. The devastating trick played by the French playwright Florian Zeller, who has brought his own 2012 play The Father to the screen in his debut as a film director, is to place the audience in the situation Anthony is in. We’re both observing and experiencing what the father is going through. I won’t spoil for you how Zeller pulls this off, but he accomplishes his purpose and then some. Cruel? The Father is absolutely brutal, particularly for those who have cared for a loved one enduring dementia. I could barely stomach the movie. An entertaining night out it is not. But we do look to art for truths, even ones we’d rather not confront.
As was true on stage, where Frank Langella won a Tony in the part, The Father is an actor’s showcase, and Hopkins will certainly earn himself an Academy Award nomination for the role. As his daughter Anne (Olivia Colman, also excellent) tries to manage him, he ranges from assertive to childlike to forlorn, a meek little Lear whose heath is his posh London apartment, the one from which he swears he will never be removed, failing to remember that this has already occurred. Having scared away one hired helper by accusing her of stealing the watch he just found in the place where he himself hid it, he charms another (Imogen Poots) by explaining that in his prime he was a professional tap dancer. He wasn’t. But he shuffles delightedly around the floor to demonstrate his prowess, and the moment captures the surprisingly sunny and childlike moods that sometimes roll in among dementia sufferers. A minute or two later, though, he’s snapping like a turtle, insulting the poor girl out of the blue. This, too, is a frighteningly observant touch. The ups and downs of the situation are nerve-shredding, and it’s understandable when family members respond by detaching themselves emotionally. This, however, requires writing off a loved one, and Colman’s alarmed and anguished gaze says everything about what that’s like.
I think I was marginally more touched by Langella’s performance when I saw the play on Broadway four years ago, particularly in its devastating final moments, but Hopkins gives a powerful, rangy performance. And unlike Langella, he has been a familiar presence on-screen for such a long time (he was in The Lion in Winter all the way back in 1968) that he is a kind of family member to the world of moviegoers. Just as Anne has, we have seen Anthony at his best and sharpest, and it hurts to contemplate him arriving at such a late stage of life.
I appreciate that Zeller doesn’t sneak in any authorial grandstanding, doesn’t muse about the implications of Anthony’s plight, or that of his daughter or his son-in-law. The writer (whose play was already made by another director into a French film, Floride, in 2015) simply presents a plausible character portrait here, taking us for a visit with a family under duress and leaving us to make of it what we will. (The Father is part of a trilogy: The Mother and The Son followed, but both plays were ineffective, and I don’t expect either to be made into a film.)
Some viewers, however, will be thinking that contemporary man simply outlives his usefulness and that it’s a kind of willful torture for everyone involved to keep this man alive much longer, even though his body is not yet failing. Such viewers will share the bitterness of Anne’s husband Paul (Rufus Sewell), whose attitude toward Anthony’s presence is considerably less understanding than Anne’s. After some frosty exchanges with the old man, he blurts out a question: How long does Anthony intend to hang around? When old people become this irritating, shouldn’t we just dump them in a home and forget about them? That’s certainly the easiest solution. All it requires is ceasing to care.