Are any of old age’s trials as terrifying to contemplate or heart-breaking to witness as the gradual erosion of self that dementia wreaks? In his astonishingly assured debut feature, French playwright-turned-director Florian Zeller handles the mental decline of an elderly man with sensitivity and insight.
Last year, Natalie Erika James Relic manifested dementia as a house-bound monster terrorising its occupants. The Father is less explicitly aligned to genre, but its representation of the disease is no less horrifying. Ben Smithard’s rich cinematography, imbued with deep mahoganies and sombre blacks, is beautiful but his almost expressionist use of lighting gives the space of Anthony’s (Anthony Hopkins) flat, where most of the film is set, an unstable psychological dimension.
That instability is further compounded by the film being told completely from Anthony’s perspective. Scenes contradict each other, such as in the film’s opening, where Anthony’s daughter, Anne (Olivia Colman), tells him that she is moving to Paris to live with her partner, but then later she is still married to her husband, Paul (Rufus Sewell), the three of them living together. In a devastating representation of the way that dementia sufferers can fail to recognise their loved ones, in several scenes Anne and Paul are played by Olivia Williams and Mark Gatiss; a frightening and confusing ordeal for Anthony and a frustrating, heart-breaking one for Anne.
Events routinely play out of sequence or repeat unpredictably; the motif of Anthony’s lost watch underscores a sense in which living with dementia is very much living out of time. Yet among the confusion Zeller sustains narrative cohesion; narrative parameters shift just as the space of the flat changes, subtly, but in any given moment they feel stable. This, too, is terrifying: an illusion of continuity that is constantly undoing itself.
Hopkins and Colman conjure between them a lifetime of love, regret and unspoken (or perhaps half-forgotten) grievances. Colman, in particular, evokes deep wells of pain in tiny glances and gestures, wincing every time Anthony blithely mentions her favoured but absent younger sister. Credit must go, too, to Imogen Poots as a young carer for whom Anthony mistakes as his younger daughter (and may well be), and Sewell as Anne’s bullying husband. Indeed, his cruelty and impatience towards Anthony are the one constant throughout the film, though in its ever-shifting narration, we can never be certain even of that.
The Father’s narrative structure is elliptical, but its trajectory is linear. Anthony is caught in a loop, living outside of time, but the people around him must continue to move forward into the future. Of a film composed of shadows, the one cast by the sense of inevitability is perhaps its most tragic.
The Father is released in UK cinemas on 11 June.