The subtitle for Florian Zeller’s stage play, The Father, which the French playwright dispensed with when adapting his work (along with co-writer Christopher Hampton) for the screen, nevertheless offers a key insight into the tone and tenor of his feature film debut as a director. A Tragic Farce, after all, gets at just what a cruel joke Zeller’s mercurial portrait of a man losing his grasp on the world around him can be. It’s a harrowing experiment in getting audiences to not just witness but experience dementia.
True to its stage-bound origins, the entirety of The Father takes place in one location—a stylish London apartment—that plays backdrop to several conversations between Anthony (Anthony Hopkins) and a rotating and recurring number of characters, including his at-home nurses, his daughters, and his sons-in-law. Except that one location is not static and keeps changing, if ever so slightly. You could’ve sworn the kitchen counter was a different colour. Wasn’t that picture above the fireplace something else? Those details, small at first and later much more pronounced, begin tipping us off that the simplicity of its first scene—where Olivia Colman’s Anne tries to tell her father she’s moving to Paris and may need to put him in a home if he keeps firing his caretakers—is designed to lull us into a false sense of security.
By the time another Olivia (Williams) shows up and announces to Anthony she’s Anne, we’re as lost as the cantankerous old man, wishing we’d have been taking notes from the start to better suss out how and when Zeller is placing us at any given moment in the film. If this Olivia is Anne, does that make the other Anne the additional sister Anthony keeps talking about? Is this new scene perhaps an old memory? A flashback? An hallucination, perhaps? The answer ends up seeming immaterial. No matter how you try to organize The Father’s chronology, or even the character list, it won’t add up.
As people keep flitting in and out of his ever-shifting apartment, wanting to counsel and care for him, Anthony has to constantly readjust to his surroundings. Each interaction feels like starting anew, which eventually becomes equally tiring and exhilarating—for Anthony and the audience alike. The Father plays like a horror film in slow motion, where the terror comes from our inability to grab hold of anything. Not people. Not places. And definitely not time, which irrevocably moves us ever closer to a point where the effort needed to keep track of Zeller’s script is overwhelming.
Unmoored from any concrete reality, Zeller’s slippery narrative risks becoming an intellectual exercise. Every new shot becomes a new mystery; every character introduced a new riddle. Yet Hopkins wholly grounds us in Anthony’s emotional turmoil. Hopkins carefully calibrates his performance to every twist in Zeller’s script. At times he’s cruel and venomous, and at others he’s charming and affable. He’s constantly setting us adrift in Anthony’s own muddled sense of reality: Who really is Anne? Why do Rufus Sewell and Mark Gatiss also seem to be playing the same person? And where, Anthony keeps asking himself as he rubs his wrist, did his watch go? (Wasn’t he just wearing it? You’ll find yourself asking time and time again).
If Zeller’s provocative premise seems “stagey” in its move to the big screen, that is no knock against it. There’s an understanding throughout that The Father is a stylistic gamble. It carefully balances its sense of emotional urgency with an alienating frame that, just as it would on stage, constantly demands its audience suspend their disbelief. Or rather it makes such disbelief its central conceit, turning The Father into what its ghostly subtitle suggests it is at its heart: a tragic farce.