AFI FEST 2020: The Father Review – The Tragic Truth About Dementia

The Father - Olivia Colman and Anthony Hopkins

Dementia is a delicate subject matter that affects a lot of families. It just so happens that it’s also the subject matter of one of the most well-acted films of the year. The most compelling aspect of The Father comes from the film’s exploration of dementia from the intimate perspective of someone living with it. As a result, The Father becomes a poignant journey that exposes all of Anthony’s spiraling emotions as he deals with dementia. The Father follows Anthony (Anthony Hopkins), an elderly man with dementia who is taken care of by his daughter Anne (Olivia Colman).

Directing an adaptation of his stage play, French playwright Florian Zeller takes his intimate stage expertise and translates it to a cinematic scale. Zeller doesn’t hide the fact that The Father‘s origins came from a stage play. By design, the action in the film is confined entirely to one central location. Unlike a set change that you’ll find in a theater, Zeller uses editing and composition to build up the disorientation caused by the sudden switching of actors and flats. He knows that properly viewing the world from Anthony’s perspective requires the audience to be confused about everything that they’re seeing.

Different actors play the same characters that we’ve already met, and dialogue talked about in a previous scene is immediately contradicted in the next. It’s a clever game plan because it puts us right into Anthony’s advancing state of dementia. By messing with audiences’ viewpoint, The Father lets them experience the terrifying loss of mental control themselves. The circumstances around Anthony can change at a moment’s notice, and every change comes in without warning. It’s such a truthful and original way to tell this kind of story, which is why Zeller’s stage play was so renowned. It’s disorienting and surreal, but it says so much about what it’s like living with dementia. 

The Father - Olivia Colman and Anthony Hopkins

Thankfully, The Father doesn’t venture into exploitative territory. The film does a tremendous job of trying to get audiences to empathize with Anthony as he mentally spirals. A lot of that has to do with the impeccable work done by the one-and-only Anthony Hopkins. Hopkins has an innate ability to infuriate you, make you laugh, and break your heart all in one go. He just embodies the character. 

Similar praise should go to Olivia Colman too, who offers the argument that caregiving is not necessarily easy on the caregiver. The way Colman internalizes her emotions is just heartbreaking to watch. It’s easily her most compassionate and heartfelt performance to date, and both Colman and Hopkins’ performances complement each other so well.

Dementia is ugly, but it is also inherently tragic, yet The Father refuses to take the easy way out by giving us a happy ending. With dementia, there are no happy endings, only difficult truths. It’s one of the many heartbreaking reasons why The Father is not an easy watch for anyone. Yet it’s a must-watch for Anthony Hopkins and Olivia Colman’s award-worthy performances.

Rating: 4.5/5 atoms

The Father opens on December 18th.

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Mark Pacis
Mark Pacis 1615 posts

Self-proclaimed "Human IMDb" and comic book geek. Biggest Iron Man fan you'll probably ever meet.