Review: ‘The Father’ (2021), starring Anthony Hopkins and Olivia Colman

February 26, 2021

by Carla Hay

Olivia Colman and Anthony Hopkins in “The Father” (Photo by Sean Gleason/Sony Pictures Classics)

“The Father” (2021) 

Directed by Florian Zeller

Culture Representation: Taking place in London, the dramatic film “The Father” features an almost-all white cast of characters (with one person of Indian heritage) representing the middle-class.

Culture Clash: An elderly man with dementia has problems determining what’s real and what isn’t, as his middle-aged daughter contemplates putting him in a nursing home.

Culture Audience: “The Father” will appeal primarily to people interested in high-quality dramas with excellent acting and a unique take on the issues of aging and mental deterioration.

Anthony Hopkins and Olivia Colman in “The Father” (Photo by Sean Gleason/Sony Pictures Classics)

The well-acted dramatic film “The Father” is a different type of psychological horror story: The movie is told entirely from the perspective of an elderly man with dementia. Viewers are taken on a harrowing ride that feels like an endless loop of uncertainty and confusion, anchored by outstanding performances from Anthony Hopkins and Olivia Colman.

Directed by Florian Zeller (who co-wrote the screenplay with Christopher Hampton), “The Father” is adapted from Zeller’s West End play. “The Father” movie, which is Zeller’s feature-film directorial debut, is designed very much like a theatrical stage production. Almost everything in the story takes place inside a building, and the movie is very heavy with dialogue.

But it’s not the type of performance piece that can be done by just any actors. This movie greatly benefits from having two remarkable leading actors who are also Academy Award winners. Hopkins gives the type of performance that is quietly devastating. Colman convincingly expresses the heartbreak of who someone who feels helpless to stop a loved one’s inevitable decline.

Even if viewers don’t know before seeing “The Father” that the story is from the point of view of someone who has dementia, this perspective is made clear very early on in the movie, which takes place in London. Hopkins portrays a retiree widower named Anthony, while Colman portrays his daughter Anne. Or is she really his daughter? Sometimes he doesn’t know who she is, and sometimes she tells him different stories about who she is.

Watching “The Father” is very much like putting pieces of a puzzle together where some of the pieces are missing, while other pieces aren’t meant to be there at all. There are scenarios that are repeated, and sometimes the same characters are portrayed by different actors. The intention is to make viewers feel as disoriented as Anthony feels.

What is consistent is that there is turmoil and indecision in Anthony’s family over what to do with him. Anne has grown frustrated because she’s having a difficult time finding a caregiver who will tolerate Anthony’s mercurial ways. He can be charming but also insulting. He can insist on being strong enough to take care of himself, but he can also show vulnerability and beg Anne not to abandon him.

The most recent caregiver whom Anne has hired is a young woman named Angela (played by Imogen Poots), who has her patience tested in taking care of Anthony. Simple tasks such as giving Anthony’s prescribed medication to him become lessons in jumping over mental minefields through his convoluted and erratic conversations. One minute Anthony tells Angela that he used to be a professional tap dancer and wants to show her some dance steps. The next minute Anne corrects him and says that Anthony was never a dancer and that he’s actually a retired engineer.

Anthony keeps telling Angela that she reminds him of his other daughter Lucy, whom he describes as a painter artist who doesn’t visit him as much as he’d like her to visit, because she’s always traveling. In front of Anne, Anthony also tells Angela that Lucy is his favorite child, as Anne’s eyes well up with tears. (One thing that’s clear is that Anthony doesn’t have any other children besides Anne and Lucy.) The real story about Lucy is eventually revealed, and it’s not much of a surprise.

Meanwhile, Anne’s husband Paul (played by Rufus Sewell) has grown increasingly frustrated with Anne’s insistence on having a caregiver for Anthony. Paul thinks that Anthony needs to be in a nursing home or some other institution where he can get 24-hour care. This disagreement has caused tension in their marriage, and Anthony notices it.

At certain parts of the story, depending on what you believe to be real, it’s explained that Anthony lived in his own apartment with a live-in caregiver. But the caregiver who preceded Angela abruptly left, so Anne decided to let Anthony temporarily stay with her and Paul until they could find a new caregiver for Anthony. Anne and Paul work outside their home on weekdays, so Anne has arranged for Angela to work until 6 p.m., when Anne is able to come home.

But then, in another scenario, Anne is divorced, has fallen in love with a man named Paul (who is never seen in the movie), and Paul lives in Paris. Anne breaks the bad news to Anthony that she will be moving to Paris, but she plans to visit Anthony on weekends on a regular basis. Meanwhile, Olivia Williams and Mark Gatiss portray two people who might or might not be in Anthony’s family.

Anthony has a fixation on his wristwatch, and it’s symbolic of his desperation to hang on to something from his past that he thinks is reliable. There are moments when he becomes enraged when he thinks that someone has stolen his watch. He has hiding places for his valuables that Anne might or might not know about when he inevitably tells her that something valuable of his is missing.

The last 15 minutes of “The Father” deliver an emotional wallop that lays bare the torturous nightmare of having dementia. The movie’s directing and screenplay are impressive, but the movie’s stellar casting and performances make it a superb movie that will leave a lasting impact on viewers.

Sony Pictures Classics released “The Father” in select U.S. cinemas on February 26, 2021, with expansions scheduled for more U.S. cinemas on March 12, 2021. The movie’s VOD release date is March 26, 2021.