We must learn to speak openly about depression and despair. About the entire searing spectrum of pain they proffer, from feeling nothing to feeling everything and the myriad dark places in between.

On its surface, Florian Zeller’s The Son (adapted from Zeller’s play of the same name, with a screenplay by Christopher Hampton) is an attempt to do just that. Disappointingly Zeller struggles to look directly at the darkness and what remains is a film that peers out at pain from between splayed fingers and keeps getting distracted by the more artful suffering of its biggest star.

Peter (Hugh Jackman) is a big city attorney with a career in its ascendency, a beautiful young wife and a healthy baby boy. There is more than a hint of self-satisfaction in his smile as he pours his evening glass of wine and surveys the kingdom of his kitchen. Kate (Laura Dern) is Peter’s first wife, who he left to pick up the pieces of the family he shattered. The fight to contain her grief and the struggles of their teenage son alone has become too much and, in desperation, she comes to Peter’s door to beg him to share the burden.

The life Beth (Vanessa Kirby) envisioned with her handsome man and their newborn did not feature an awkward teenager, raw with anger and resentment, hunched over his morning coffee in her kitchen. But Nicholas wanted to move in and Peter is big on doing the right thing so now she is step-parenting a mentally ill child while her husband disregards his role in the boy’s breakdown and obliviously carries on with his new life. Popping home for the odd pep talk when he can spare the time and the gravitas.

It gradually becomes clear that Peter’s new life works because he is living according to The Script: the notorious checklist of cheating husbands everywhere which dictates that they rewrite history, erase any happy memories of their previous life and minimise their own exposure to the fallout from their actions. He so determinedly avoids looking back that he cannot see the drastic changes in his once carefree boy. And will not see that Nicholas is struggling and desperately in need of help.

As Nicholas’s state of mind declines, The Son does well to explore the further damage that parents’ lack of awareness can inflict. Zeller showcases the parallel dangers of Kate’s teary optimism that her drowning child is only waving for attention and Peter’s dogged refusal to believe he can’t simply kick to the surface and swim. The frustration both approaches provoke is cleverly drawn out and exploited as is the emotional tug of war that decides Nicholas’s future treatment plan.

For a film titled The Son, Zeller’s devastating but flawed domestic drama is strangely preoccupied with the boy’s father and, much like Peter, struggles to keep Nicholas’s needs centred. It hesitantly touches on generational trauma with a stirring cameo from Anthony Hopkins (recalling Zeller’s more cohesive previous feature) and might more aptly be called The Sons to acknowledge the ripple effect of flawed fatherhood actually sitting at its heart.

Jackman’s performance is impressive enough; he manages to softshoe shuffle from cocksure to bereft without a misstep. Yet all the while an internal voice was yelling IT’S NOT ABOUT YOU, DUDE! Laura Dern is effective in her slimmer role but too often sidelined. If the, always dazzling, Greatest Showman had only shared his spotlight we would have had room to appreciate Kate’s own multi-faceted pain and the nuances of Zen McGrath’s achingly accurate depiction of despair.

In addition to its young star, the other area in which The Son does live up to its potential is in its sound design. Hans Zimmer’s emotive score is interspersed with ponderous silence so that any intrusion of ordinary noise from domestic life intensifies an inevitable thrum of dread in the pit of your stomach. This only makes it all the more disappointing that The Son flinches away from the knockout blow of its own ending and tacks one last big Hugh moment on instead.

The Son opens in UK cinemas on 17th February

The Son
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Emily Breen
Emily Breen began writing for HeyUGuys in 2009. She favours pretzels over popcorn and rarely watches trailers as she is working hard to overcome a compulsion to ‘solve’ plots. Her trusty top five films are: Betty Blue, The Red Shoes, The Princess Bride, The Age of Innocence and The Philadelphia Story. She is troubled by people who think Tom Hanks was in The Philadelphia Story and by other human beings existing when she is at the cinema.
the-son-reviewDespite the fine work from its cast (spotlighting Zen McGrath), Zeller's wayward focus detracts and dilutes the power this film always seems to be on the edge of unleashing.