For Anthony (Anthony Hopkins), dementia is like a prison that’s constantly undergoing renovations: His room seems to get bigger and smaller each day. The decor on the walls always looks different. A woman walks in–is it his daughter, or one of the nurses? It’s a frightening existence, and the only guarantee is that there’s no escape.
That ruptured equilibrium forms the basis of The Father, a harrowing, heartbreaking film about an intelligent man’s journey into the fog. As the story begins, Anthony tangles with Anne (Olivia Colman), his daughter and primary advocate. She’s grown frustrated, as his condition has exacerbated his mood swings. Anthony alienates his nurses with alarming regularity, which puts the burden back on Anne to care for him. In the film’s opening sequence, she informs her father that she’s met someone, and will be moving from London to Paris. Anthony’s demeanor instantly switches from proud and petulant to pitiful: Who will look after him? Who will keep him company?
It’s here that the film begins to move Anthony’s world on its axis. His living area constantly changes from one moment to the next. The next time Anne enters his apartment, she’s a completely different woman (Olivia Williams). Suddenly, a man (Mark Gatiss) sits in his living room and reads the paper. “What are you doing in my flat?!” Anthony asks, angrily. “I live here,” the man curtly replies. But does he? Anthony’s watch is missing. Was it stolen? Did he lose it?
Anthony occupies the unstable center of a constantly evolving nightmare. As an audience, we must learn to live within his profound confusion. We must watch the man he is slowly disintegrate into the man he was. This sad story is a reality for millions of people and their loved ones, something that gives The Father even more dramatic weight.
One look at the cast should tell you the performers are more than up for such a heavy drama. Hopkins is 83 and has nothing to prove, but it’s entirely possible this might be performance of his life. Anthony isn’t just a doddering, vacant old man. He’s a proud, tempestuous, charming character in the midst of a catastrophic transition. Hopkins can do so much with a single world, or a simple facial expression. We feel like we know Anthony, even in those moments where he doesn’t know himself. Hopkins has rarely been this vulnerable onscreen, and it’s arresting to watch. He may not win the Oscar this year, but his work here is certainly deserving of it.
The same goes for Colman: I mean, does she ever do mediocre work? Her Anne is a good-hearted woman stuck in an impossible situation. She has endured Anthony’s verbal lashings–his poisonous defiance. Her recent life has been torpedoed by his illness, and she’s arriving at a breaking point. A devastating decision has to be made, and Colman shows us a woman wracked by having to make it. Between these two leads, you won’t better acting in any movie this year.
“Do you know me?” Anthony asks a nurse. “What sort of man am I?” Dementia doesn’t just take–it steals. And for that crime, the victim is the one in prison. In arresting fashion, The Father invites us to experience that incarceration. We look at the tragedy of dementia with unflinching eyes. This is an incredible, important film.