Translating a lived experience, particularly one marked by physical or mental illness, is one of cinema’s greatest challenges. Of late, the horror genre has been the champion of such stories and such realities, where films like Jennifer Kent’s The Babadook, and Ari Aster’s Hereditary, have projected the fear and vulnerability of those suffering from mental illness. More recently, Natalie Erika James’ Relic accurately reflected the pain and horror of dementia, showing the intricacies of an increasingly decaying mind, and the immediate emotional responses of those that care for the individual. Whilst certainly without the physical shock and gore of the aforementioned film, Florian Zeller’s The Father is in itself a horror, a terrifying visceral trip into the mind of a dementia sufferer, worthy of the enduring dread it ultimately constructs.
Utilising cinema’s most simplistic mechanisms, Zeller’s film explains the pain and torment of dementia with ingenious subtlety, replicating the confusing loss of logical reason to allow audiences to slip into the mind of a sufferer. Based on the award-winning play, by Zeller himself, the adapted screenplay from him and Christopher Hampton explores the relationship of Anne (Olivia Colman) and her 80-year-old father Anthony (Anthony Hopkins) when Anne seeks assistance for his care.
“I am not leaving my flat,” Anthony Hopkins impassionately cries several times throughout the film, though as his environment changes and morphs, it appears that he had left his flat many months ago. The bedroom looks similar, though faintly different, as with the hallway, dining table and the paintings on the wall. Just as the set design ingeniously twists and changes, so too do the actors, switching on occasion to further replicate the disorientating logic of the central character. It’s not often you see such a remarkable filmmaking triumph that so accurately replicates the complexities of another person’s mind, as we join in Anthony’s bemusement of the reality around him where logic is slowly ebbing away.
This is, of course, led by a devastating central performance from Anthony Hopkins who captures the torment of dementia on an illustrious and joyous soul. We yearn for his resurgence and mourn for his loss of character, particularly due to the palpable relationship he and his daughter, played by Olivia Colman, share. Colman’s own sorrowful performance elicits powerful sympathy, with her grief painting a vivid image of the man her father once was. Joined by equally strong performances from Imogen Poots and a spiteful Rufus Sewell, Hopkins leads this mighty ensemble cast with full force, demonstrating just why he has been such a revered actor for so long.
What culminates is a strong, tightly written, 90-minute drama, set in the confines of several increasingly cramped locations which brutally deconstructs the reality of dementia. As the scenery becomes more fixed, props begin to empty from rooms and sheets are thrown over old paintings. The mind of an elderly man is cracking, and his identity is becoming vacant. It’s a harrowing portrait remarkably constructed by directorial debutant Florian Zeller that represents the unfortunate reality of so many.