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Columns Eleanor Ringel Cater

‘The Father’ – Anthony Hopkins deals with dementia in stellar performance

A scene from "The Father" - a best picture nominee

By Eleanor Ringel Cater

As emotionally complex as its title is simple, “The Father” offers one of the most memorable performances you’ll ever see. That it comes from an actor whose name has become synonymous with memorable performances makes his portrayal all the more remarkable.

I mean Anthony Hopkins, and if you think Julie Christie and Julianne Moore nailed the encroaching horror of Alzheimer’s in their very fine movies – “Away from Her” and “Still Alice” respectively, well, as they say, you ain’t seen nothing yet.

A scene from “The Father”

In its way, “The Father” is as emotionally rigorous as “Amour,” Michael Haneke’s Oscar-winning film about aging in all its inevitable harshness. Yet Florian Zeller’s picture, which is based on his own play, is a far more, well…entertaining is perhaps a misleading word, but it’s an apt one.

While it taps into primal issues of family, caregiving, and mortality, “The Father” is never a slog. Rather it’s a mesmerizing showcase for Hopkins at the height of his considerable powers. He’s matched every step of the way by Olivia Colman (“The Favourite,” “The Crown”) who plays his daughter.

When we first meet Anthony (Hopkins), he is in the early stages of an apparently elegant retirement. Ensconced in his book-filled London apartment, he seems at home with himself and his circumstances.  But we slowly realize that dementia is also making itself at home. Despite the best efforts of his daughter Anne (Colman), Anthony is slowly but inevitably losing the battle with this relentless disease.

Essential to the film’s brilliance is that it shows a good bit of his growing entanglement from Anthony’s point of view. Is that man in his sitting room a stranger or is he, as he claims, his son-in-law? Why does Anne go out to fetch his dinner looking like Colman and then, when she returns, like a different person (Olivia Williams) entirely? And is Anne moving to Paris to be with her lover – as she carefully explains in the film’s first scene – or did he make that up or has she already moved?

A poster of “The Father”

Anthony, who knows something’s off but insists he’s not getting worse, keeps driving away the caregivers Anne employs. In one heartbreaking scene, he perks up and flirts with a cute new hire (Imogen Poots, also excellent), then sinks into confusion and resentment.

The movie’s exceptional precision hones-in on that confusion in unexpected ways. We sense the growing incoherence of Anthony’s perceptions, yet we also identify with Anne’s quiet despair and sense of helplessness.

While it never feels like a play, “The Father” nonetheless crackles with that peculiar and ever rarer theatrical energy that the best character-centric movies have. And it dares to flirt with occasional funny moments even as it moves toward hopelessness.

Yes, the late Chadwick Boseman will win the Oscar for “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom” and, yes, I’ll applaud his win along with everyone else.

But deep down, anyone who sees “The Father” will know that Hopkins has given the best performance of the year – or perhaps, several years.

‘The Father” will be available digitally on March 26, and it is currently showing at AMC Southlake 24.

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Eleanor Ringel

Eleanor Ringel, Movie Critic, was the film critic for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution for almost 30 years. She was nominated multiple times for a Pulitzer Prize. She won the Best of Cox Critic, IMAGE Film & Video and Women In Film awards. An Atlanta native, she graduated from Westminster and Brown University. She was the critic on WXIA’s Noonday, a member of Entertainment Weekly's Critics Grid and wrote TV Guide’s movie/DVD. She is member of the National Society of Film Critics and currently talks about movies on WMLB and writes the Time Out column for the Atlanta Business Chronicle.

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