There’s a very watchable YouTube video in which, playing the publicity game, Anthony Hopkins and Jodie Foster discuss his most recent film, The Father, hers, The Mauritanian, and in between share a few memories of The Silence of the Lambs, among other things. During the half hour Zoom call Foster asks Hopkins, in so many words, about his “process”, how he approached his character in The Father, what preparation he did.
“None… really,” says Hopkins, blowing what’s left of Method acting out of the water with a couple of words. They’re even more impressive once you’ve seen the film, which is not an easy watch, be warned, unless you’re the sort who cheers along to the sight of one man at the end of his life losing everything he has thanks to memory loss, dementia, Alzheimer’s… it’s never exactly specified.
There have been films on the subject before, and they tend to yank great performances out of people. Julie Christie in Away from Her and Julianne Moore in Still Alice spring to mind. But they were both younger people. Hopkins is now in his 80s. Losing your marbles is one of the daily worries for people of his age – “being an old guy now I was able to easily fall into it” he half-jokingly puts it in the Zoom call.
It’s a gruesome, harrowing, awful fate and the brilliance of the script (adapted from Florian Zeller’s play by Christopher Hampton) is to put us right inside the mind of the person falling to bits. He’s become the camera, in essence. His daughter, Anne, is played by Olivia Colman one minute. Then the next she’s played by Olivia Williams. One minute the new carer – the latest in a long line – looks like Imogen Poots, the next it’s Olivia Williams again.
It’s confusing and, of course, it’s meant to be. That’s what he’s experiencing. Where does Anthony (as his character is called) live? Is it in his splendid mansion flat, or does he now live in his daughter’s place? The venue switches, abruptly. Why does Mark Gatiss keep turning up, a supercilious sneer (no one does it better) on his face, to bully the old guy? Is Rufus Sewell a son, a son-in-law, some other relation? Why is it chicken for dinner every night? Is Anthony’s doctor’s surgery really situated in the same building as his place, or his daughter’s place, or wherever he lives?
And Anthony’s obsession with his watch. He’s mislaid it. Again. He must have it. It’s of prime importance. It’s never stated baldly, nothing is, but time is now exceedingly precious to Anthony, that much he does still know. And the watch, at least, is in his control.
If forgetting is awful, The Father’s other grim observation is that it brings with it another danger – suddenly remembering again, as Anthony does when, in a sudden moment of near clarity, he recalls his other daughter, the one who died. That’s why she never comes to visit.
It’s a film with awards-bait written all over it. Everyone in it is good, Williams, Colman and Poots particularly, but it’s Hopkins’s show and he gets to run the full gamut of emotions, from booming fury (no one better at that than Hopkins), to flirting boyishly with his new carer (Poots), to abject whimpering misery, crying on a nurse’s shoulder for his mummy.
Hampton (or Zeller, not sure which) has written Hopkins’s lines to a semi-theatrical rhythm, which suits his delivery brilliantly. There’s also the script’s occasional theatrical tendency for one actor to reiterate what another has just said – I have no idea why theatre does this – but then, like Michael Haneke’s Amour (a close cousin), this is a stagey film, set largely in the confines of several rooms.
The “Kafka problem” – how to tell the reader/audience that the unreliable narrator is unreliable without being ham-fisted about it – has been sidestepped thanks to the age of the central character. Dementia and therefore unreliability go with the territory.
“I feel like I”m losing all my leaves,” weeps the distraught Anthony at the end of what has been a powerful drama offering little in the way of comfort. I wanted to stop watching and at the same time couldn’t.
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© Steve Morrissey 2021