It is an inescapable fact of life that for every relationship between a parent and a child, there will come a time where the child becomes the carer and the parent the dependant. This heart-breaking yet universal theme is at the core of a touching new film.
THE FATHER, based on an acclaimed, award-winning play, starts out as a simple drama hinged on a familiar dynamic – a middle-aged daughter is losing patience with her elderly father, a mischievous and highly independent man, whose grip on reality is fading but who refuses to allow a carer to look after him. She is moving away and, to ensure her father’s safety in her absence, she must find someone who will take care of him. As he – in the early stages of dementia – tries to make sense of his changing circumstances, he begins to doubt his loved ones, his own mind and even the fabric of his reality.
Making his debut as film director is the award-winning French playwright, Florian Zeller, who was responsible for the original play. He co-wrote the screenplay with his long-time collaborator and translator Christopher Hampton, who emphasises that while the theme may be familiar, the film is not a medical treatise. “It is not about a medical condition and the people who suffer from it,” he explains. “Instead, THE FATHER tries to find an artistic way of presenting the way dementia affects the people around the patient – those who suffer the fall-out.”
The story is deliberately told through the eyes of Anthony, the elderly father, whose life has become a source of ever-disorienting confusion, with the characters and locations constantly shifting – resulting in the viewer feeling as confused as Anthony is. It is disorienting and surreal, but it speaks volumes to living with dementia. “I didn’t want to tell the story from the outside, because it’s already been done so many times,” says Zeller. “I wanted to try to tell that story from the inside, as if the audience was in the main character’s head.”
As Zeller homes in on the theme with thoughtful direction and careful storytelling, the message he wants to convey is supported by exceptional acting. Anthony Hopkins and Olivia Colman masterfully portray the dementia-afflicted man and his daughter, Anne. While Colman’s expressive face registers all the emotions her character is going through, Hopkins perfectly captures the fear, frustration and anger of a man who is losing his grip on reality. As he spans the chasm between independent adult and scared child, his rich and emotive performance adds elements of both thriller and horror to the film.
Despite its dark subject matter, the film is built on a foundation of empathy and celebrates the unbreakable bond between parent and child.
Commenting on the theme, Colman says: “It is terrifying to think of your world shifting beneath your feet when you’ve lost the ability to comprehend the change. For all the complexity I think at its heart the film is very simple. It is about loss and love, and the way you suffer when the person you love no longer knows you. It is beautifully written and very moving.”
She’s right. THE FATHER is an accurate and somewhat unsettling account of both what it is like to love someone with dementia, and what it is like to live as someone with dementia, and offers a heart-rending account of what happens when a relationship, which has functioned in a certain way for decades, suddenly and irrevocably changes.
The film recently won the coveted Audience Award at the San Sebastian Film Festival, and Anthony Hopkins is slated for a Best Actor Academy Award nomination next year for his devastatingly emotive performance.
THE FATHER is distributed locally by Filmfinity Pty (Ltd.) and will be released in South African cinemas on 15 January 2021.