26th April 2021

The Father: Exploring the horrors of dementia

Anthony Hopkins and Olivia Colman shine in The Father, an Oscar-nominated play adaptation
The Father: Exploring the horrors of dementia
Photo: geralt @ pixabay

The Father is Florian Zeller’s film adaptation of his own play, starring Anthony Hopkins and Olivia Colman. It has been a tank this awards season, garnering numerous nominations, mainly for its performances and screenplay.

The film centres around Anthony (Anthony Hopkins), an old man suffering from dementia, and his daughter’s (Olivia Colman) efforts to help him. Anthony’s frequent memory loss and temperamental nature put a significant strain on their relationship, also angering Anne’s husband, Paul.

Where this film truly excels is in how much discomfort it is able to create, combining Anthony’s confusion with repeated shots and even entire sequences, to give the viewer a distorted sense of time. Zeller also uses two different actors playing Paul and Anne at certain points in the film, and then has those same actors reappear as different characters later on, adding to the disorientating feeling the film had been building up for so long.

While I would not call this a horror film by any means, the horror elements employed by Zeller help to create more tension and discomfort than any film released in well over a year. Despite Zeller playing with time, it is still easy to put a timeline of the film together. It is an achievement, as jumping around in time normally leads to some confusion, whereas here it was no more than was intended.

Another exceptional aspect of The Father is obviously the performances. I’m not sure if I need to tell you that Anthony Hopkins and Olivia Colman are both amazing here, but I will anyways.

Hopkins, despite his character being standoffish and even aggressive at times, manages to get you on his side through the feeling of helplessness that permeates from him every second he’s on screen; whether it’s the main focus of a scene or not, you can’t help but feel bad for him because of what he is going through.

Olivia Colman too is able to convey her character’s conflict in a nuanced and very effective way. Although her character doesn’t like her father’s short temper and tendency to drive away carers, she still won’t abandon him, and wants to continue helping him despite the fact that he upsets her numerous times across the film.

The visuals here stand out as well, the cinematography looks great, and while production design is not something that usually catches my eye, it’s fantastic here. The openness of the flat is an excellent contrast to how trapped the viewer can feel looking through the eyes of Anthony, and it makes the horror elements even more unexpected at the beginning, and therefore all the more frightening.

There are a few twists here that could have felt somewhat emotionally exploitative, but they’re hinted at in such a way that they aren’t a complete shock. I think overall the film is very sensitive towards its subject matter, which is great because dementia is an issue that could easily have felt heavy-handed.

Overall, Florian Zeller’s The Father manages to create what is essentially, but not quite, a horror film, using a real-life illness and handling it in a sensitive manner. The performances, visuals, and screenplay are all brilliant, which is why it’s my favourite of this year’s eight Best Picture nominees, and will be hard to top as my favourite film of 2021 so far.


Words by Dominic Hayes.

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