Why do you watch films? Is it for joy, entertainment, distraction? Is it because you want a deeper understanding of the human experience? Maybe it is all of those reasons and more. I ask because watching Florian Zeller’s ‘The Father’ made me investigate what it is I want from a film. What am I expecting, or hoping for when I sit down and offer up a few hours of my valuable time to the gods of celluloid? It struck me early on in the proceedings that it has been a very long time since a film did that. My kind of film.
Before we begin, however, a word of warning. If you are currently living with a loved one suffering from dementia, I would avoid watching ‘The Father’. I am lucky enough never to have watched a member of my own family, or a partner, suffer from this debilitating condition. But, sadly I have witnessed the rapid decline of friend’s parents and partners over the years and this film portrays in lurid detail how harrowing that journey can be. There have been many incredible films made portraying the difficulties of caring for someone with dementia, Judi Dench’s performance as Iris Murdoch particularly stands out, but ’The Father’ is the most honest and brutal depiction I have ever seen and shows us more than the carers point of view.
The premise, as so often happens in complex films, is a simple one. An elderly gentleman suffering from dementia moves in with his daughter who arranges carers to look after him during the day while she and her husband are at work. I really do not want to spoil the ingenuity of the writing, so I am going to tread carefully with this review regarding how much detail I reveal. In my humble opinion, never before has a writer or director given us such a clear interpretation of what it might be like to actually suffer from this condition, as opposed to living with someone who is ailing.
This will be the sixth Oscar nomination for Anthony Hopkins, who already has one little golden statue for ‘Silence of the Lambs’. This is by far his best performance to date. If he does not win the award for best actor, I fear I may turn away from the Oscars forever. Acting is a strange profession. There are many jobs where old age prevents people from furthering a career. Acting is the complete opposite. Age and experience can only help someone express the fear of dying and being left alone and as actors get older wonderful roles like this come along to keep everybody on their toes.
The supporting cast is sublime. Olivia Coleman ought to be carrying home her second statue too. The mixed emotions she does her best to keep bottled up seep through in her eyes and her facial expressions as she tries to do what is best for her father. I can only compare watching her and Anthony Hopkins on screen together to watching world-class tennis players in a Wimbledon final. Two supreme talents bringing out the best in each other. Nods to Rufus Sewell (who I have always loved) and Mark Gatiss too for their understated but arresting performances. And as usual, I kept my ears open too. The score is by one of my favourite composers, Ludivico Einaudi. The poignancy of what we are seeing matches what we are hearing beautifully. It could have so easily been overdone.
Some of my favourite films are those which I was not sure if I ‘enjoyed’ while watching them. This may sound bizarre, but it takes me back to what I was asking you earlier. Why do you watch films? I actually turned ‘The Father’ off after ten minutes, as I was not ‘enjoying’ it and not in the mood. I can only tell you how pleased I am that the next day I decided to return to it. Films are not always about escapism, fun, entertainment. There are certain films that provide none of that, but they leave a mark on you. ‘The Father’ has most definitely left its mark on me. All I will say is, if you decide to watch it after reading this review, please be in the right frame of mind. By no means is this an easy film to watch, but any effort is handsomely rewarded, I assure you.
For anybody needing help or support with this issue, you can call The Dementia Helpline for free on 1771.