The main characters of The Father, the directorial debut of French playwright Florian Zeller, are Anthony (Anthony Hopkins), Anne (Olivia Colman) and Ludovico Einaudi’s score, which in its unsettling brilliance evokes the horror genre much more than any family drama we might have expected. That’s no accident.
Adapted from Zeller’s own acclaimed play, The Father is a breathtakingly original take on a well-known recipe. Anthony must come to terms with his rapidly developing Alzheimer’s. Chaos, tragedy and shouting ensue. We’ve seen this many times on screen, never mind on stage, with just about every illness there is. The best of the genre leave a mark and are duly labelled “important”, the worst are quickly forgotten.
The Father isn’t like any of those: it’s much, much better than it is important, though important it still is. Without giving too much away, Zeller’s conceit is to tell the entire story from Anthony’s perspective. An unreliable narrator if we ever saw one, events begin to clash and characters blur. The suffering of that cruel and widely suffered but underexplored illness becomes achingly clear.
Under Hopkins’ stewardship, Anthony is beautifully drawn out. The 83-year-old Welsh actor, who has the same birthday (year included) and (if you haven’t noticed) the same name as his character, would be any right-thinking person’s first choice for this role. Well, he doesn’t underperform. He dazzles. In a physical and sometimes manic turn, Hopkins prowls around the living room like a wounded beast. His booming voice looms over proceedings – even a comically oversized jumper can’t undermine his supremacy.
Hopkins’ legendary status as an actor, which has seen him play a gallery of cinema’s most domineering parts, is memorably contrasted with Anthony’s flailing sense of control. Alzheimer’s is known to rid its sufferers from swathes of their known lives, presenting only flashes of virility. Hopkins effortlessly toes the line between the two. Overall it’s a tremendous lead performance.
And if Hopkins is the number one candidate for his character, Olivia Colman would be the same for hers. No one quite acts well-meaning people like she does – on the one hand just about managing, and on the other quite furious at the predicament they’ve found themselves in. That’s certainly true of Anne, Anthony’s daughter and, in many ways, our proxy. I’m not sure two actors have been an entire movie like this since Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor wowed Hollywood with Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? more than fifty years ago. Colman and Hopkins prove themselves of that calibre here, in case we didn’t know.
But back to Einaudi’s score, which is like icing on a cake – except if the cake was mostly icing and it was some of the best icing you’d ever had.
For the most part, The Father doesn’t really have scenes. Conversations don’t start and finish but rather stop abruptly, usually somewhere in the middle. Zeller shows us a corridor or a mantlepiece and then, oh, we’re in another. I don’t know that it’s an accurate representation of Alzheimer’s, but it’s a fantastically moving one. The music cues are incredibly important because, without them, we’d miss a crucial insight into the hellish interiority of Anthony’s mind. Tension in The Father is led by music in much the same way music communicates internal feelings in opera. For a seasoned composer like Einaudi, that’s little surprise. What’s impressive is how well a first-time director wields it.
For all its sombreness and angst, the brilliance of the performances and the stunning atmosphere Zeller has constructed made me desperate for The Father not to end. As they say in the opera, bravo.