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Thread: THE FATHER (Florian Zeller 2020)

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    Jul 2002
    SF Bay Area

    THE FATHER (Florian Zeller 2020)



    Elder care

    Film depictions of dementia proliferate as the issue and awareness of it grow worldwide at a rate said to be "of epidemic proportions." But of course a medical problem isn't in itself the stuff of art. In tackling it, the French writer Florian Zeller, whose play adapted by Christopher Hampton he himself directs for this film, has sought a compromise. He delivers humble, realistic movie-of-the-week observational details, but frames them in ways that suggest the Theater of the Absurd. He has nothing of the resonance of a playwright like Samuel Beckett. The trajectory itself may nostalgically remind us of that greatest of all tragedies of a crazy old man losing it, Shakespeare's King Lear, but Zeller's brand of absurdist surrealism is too realistic to achieve nobility or tragedy. This is a look at dementia that trues to depict the world as the confused old man sees it while showing us him as those around see him. Zeller has heightened the drama as well as making the confusion into Pinteresque wackiness. The play-into-film has strong moments, and some that don't quite connect so well. It seems gimmicky, yet it has the power to move us as Anthony Hopkins, seeming more intelligent than usual, lays on the helplessness and pitifulness.

    Zeller is unquestionably a talented and ambitious writer. He has also done plays called The Mother and The Son: he must want to have the whole family covered. This play, in its film adaptation, is effectively presented, with international stars like Anthony Hopkins and Olivia Coleman, and a good cast including Rufus Sewall and Imogen Poots. Hopkins is also just about exactly the real age of his character, the "Anthony" (originally "Andre") of Zeller's script. No makeup necessary! So we can expect work of richness and subtlety, within the limits of the material.

    The Father addresses the subject of Anthony (Anthony Hopkins), an eighty-something gentleman, evidently once highly accomplished, who is now plainly losing his memory and his bearings, with his grown daughter Anne (Olivia Coleman) trying to cope when she apparently must find someone to care for him full time now that she is moving to Paris and can no longer drop by every day, or have her father live with her as she now does. In particular she faces Anthony's repeated refusals to allow in a caregiver (the simpler British term is "carer") driving out one woman (they seem to be women) after another.

    For his multiple point-of-view portrait Zeller draws substantially on the once vibrant midcentury absurdist dramatic tradition whose cornerstones were Ionesco, Beckett, and Genet and whose decorative masonry was crafted by Albee and Pinter. In Ionesco, it is usual for a married couple sitting down to chat to discover with surprise that they live in the same house. This is the world of Alzheimer's. In Beckett, we are playing an endgame, which has both nobility and menial absurdity and can flip back and forth from one to the other in a stunning, heartbreaking instant. In Pinter, in their meandering conversations people play wicked, mean mind games with each other, and one may not know if they have known each other for a long time or have just met. We glimpse moments like all these throughout The Father. Now they exhibit not tragedy or existential terror but the pathetic woes of an addled old man.

    The trouble is, all the devices used to show Anthony's predicament that seem to suit so well to the depiction of senility, have been around for a long time in use for other purposes - to convey the surrealism of everyday modern life, the craziness of families, the triviality of convention, the disorientation of the unfolding of time or the sheer absurdity of the human condition. In this film version of The Father we get a patchwork of styles and angles. The film works as an approximation, sometimes brilliantly observant, sometimes a little too absurd to be as telling or as touching as it may wish to be, though that edge of detachment may be welcome in a story that's going somewhere so basically hopeless and sad.

    More than halfway through the film plays a lot with the surreal. It gives us, apparently, moments from the life of Anthony (Hopkins) as he gets things confused and jumbled. He think's at one point that he's in his own flat, which he bought years ago, but in fact, he's beeen taken in by his daughter Anne.. He's surprised to encounter a man there, who is Anne's husband Paul. At first Paul is played by Mark Gatiss; then for a longer spell he's played by Rufus Seweall. He hears Anne (mostly played by Olivia Coleman, briefly also played by Olivia Williams) tell him she is moving to Paris to be with a new man, but this turns out not to be true: she's staying in London and she's still with her husband, in the same flat Anthony is now living in. Or maybe not; maybe she is moving to Paris. When a new carer called Laura (Imogen Poots) comes to meet Anthony, to see if they can get along, he grows lively, plays up to her, pours her and himself two neat Scotches, and says in life he was a dancer, a tap dancer, though Anne interjects, "Dad! You were an engineer!" A little playful whirl for Mr. Hopkins and the playwright.

    It's a wacky world Anthony lives in now, sometimes fun, often not. It's not fun that he turns on people, tells Anne he always preferred her sister, accuses the last carer of stealing the watch he keeps misplacing. We see and hear things as Anthony does; but the filter is not precise. We also see and hear things as Paul and Anne do and thus sense their frustration and despair. Paul, as played by Rufus Sewall, gives us a cold outsider's point of view. When he's alone with Anthony he asks him, bluntly, "How long are you going to hang around getting on everyone's tits?" The question comes back again, expressed in more brutal terms.

    A turn to the real comes past midway with the presence of the aforesaid Paul, particularly in a scene at dinner with the three of them, Anne, Paul, and Anthony, because at this moment for once there seems to be a sensed, shared awareness of the whole situation. Again when Anne is out of the room, Paul is blunt with Anthony, pointing out that the couple's Italian holiday has recently had to be cancelled because the old man drove away the carer and had to be brought from his flat to theirs so Anne could keep an eye on him.

    What we see way ahead of time is that Anthony is already very far gone mentally, so much so it seems rather implausible that he could have been functioning without those carers he has been driving away. Clearly, the kindly Anne and her disgruntled husband have a growing emergency on their hands. Anne and Paul must come to the recognition that a couple of adults living in a nice flat won't be able to manage an older man losing his mind.

    The acting is impeccable, of course. The writing is less satisfying. Zeller is clever - too clever. If he'd provided something less showy and theatrical and more simple and true the result might have been more moving, although Hopkins wrings the maximum pathos from his character's decline and the film has garnered many acting awards and nominations.

    The Father, 97 mins., debuted at Sundance Jan. 2020, showing subsequently at over a dozen international festivals including Toronto, Telluride, Woodstock, Zurich, the Hamptons, Mill Valley and AFI (Los Angeles). Many awards including editing and best screenplay. A Sony Pictures Classics release it opens in the US Feb. 26, 2021 in NY/LA, Mar. 12 in theaters nationwide and Mar. 26 on demand. UK theatrical release Mar. 12. Metascore 87%.

    Last edited by Chris Knipp; 02-24-2021 at 04:51 PM.


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