Don’t you remember? This innocuous question, a conversational bridge and a filler in daily speech, becomes a cross that Anthony is increasingly unable to bear. An octogenarian from London, Anthony has begun an inexorable slide into dementia. Time has lost meaning for him, even though he tries to keep up by constantly peering at his watch – if only he could find it.
The characteristics of this debilitating form of mental atrophy are brilliantly imagined for the screen in Florian Zeller’s Oscar-nominated The Father – the crippling loss of memory and inability to distinguish morning from evening, the hallucinations and the paranoia, the repetitive behaviour, the terror over the gradual loss of identity. The French playwright and first-time director has based The Father on his own play La Pere and has co-written the movie along with Christopher Hampton.
The intricate screenplay explores Anthony’s escalating disorientation through a non-linear narrative, a seamless mix of imagined and actual encounters, and the recurrence of events and conversations. Much of the movie is seen through Anthony’s eyes, nudging viewers to understand what it means to lose the ability to relate to regular life.
The movie mostly takes place in a flat, beautifully designed by Peter Francis. In this large apartment with never-ending rooms and doors that don’t open out to what they are supposed to, Anthony attempts to assert a final stand against oblivion, even as his daughter Anne struggles to cope with his condition.
The Father appears to begin in the present. Anne (Olivia Colman) is trying to persuade Anthony (Anthony Hopkins) to accept a new carer. Anthony has shooed away a previous attendant with the belligerence typical of the newly minted elderly patient who cannot accept what is happening to him.
Anthony is also anguished that Anne is planning to move to Paris and leave him in an institution. Or is she? As the 97-minute movie unfolds, it becomes increasingly difficult to distinguish between what Anthony is imagining and what is happening to him (and when). Imogen Poots plays three different characters, while Anne herself seems to change her story every so often.
The repeated use of long shots (the fluid camerawork is by Ben Smithard) and skilful editing by Yorgos Lamprinos underscore the growing distance between Anthony’s reality and his understanding of it. By eschewing dream sequences and depicting Anthony’s fantasies in a realistic manner, Zeller chronicles Anthony’s precarious state in shatteringly honest ways.
Anthony Hopkins’s heart-rending performance has rightly earned him an Oscar nomination in the Best Actor in a Leading Role category. It will be a shame if Hopkins’s brilliance at portraying Anthony’s struggle to hold his head high even as his mind fails him is bypassed by Oscar voters. The supporting cast, especially Olivia Colman, is equally noteworthy. But the Father belongs to the veteran actor and the debutant director who has moved beyond cliche and sentimentality to reveal the true nature of dementia.