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TIFF 2020: The Father

An impactful film that does not shy away from its examination of dementia and aging
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The difficulties of aging and dementia are highlighted in this star-studded film. COURTESY OF TIFF
The difficulties of aging and dementia are highlighted in this star-studded film. COURTESY OF TIFF

The Father, directed by Florian Zeller, is a portrayal of the loss of mental acuity due to dementia. The film, which is an adaptation of Zeller’s 2012 play by the same name, is ostensibly told from the perspective of the titular character, Anthony (Sir Anthony Hopkins). It is an excellent film with a great cast, and it dives into a frightening facet of the human experience.

While the story surrounds Anthony, it does not forget about the impact of the condition on those around him. Interpersonal tension is interwoven into the film from the beginning. One of the opening scenes shows Anthony and his daughter, Anne (Olivia Colman), sitting together as she tries to explain why she is hiring a caregiver for him.

She is going to Paris, but she doesn’t want to leave him alone. She certainly doesn’t want to put him in a nursing home, but that unspoken possibility hangs between them. He tries to convince her — but more so, himself — that he doesn’t need anyone and that he is fine. The tremor in his voice when he asks, “What’s going to become of me?” betrays that he did not fully succeed in his persuasion.

Zeller uses cleverly placed cuts and set changes to illustrate the unreliable nature of Anthony’s account of his own life by changing the actors who play the characters between different scenes. First, he is in his apartment’s kitchen, alone. Then, as day seems to melt into night, he finds a man (Mark Gatiss) in the apartment’s living room.

The man claims to be Anthony’s son-in-law. Anthony is told that he is living with Anne and her husband, Paul (Rufus Sewell). But he was just in his own apartment before! Anne comes home, but it is not the same woman as earlier — this time, she is played by Olivia Williams.

Some scenes are repeated, with different actors playing the same characters with similar dialogue. Others are ended the same way they began. Anthony’s repeated misplacement of his wristwatch symbolizes the literal loss of his ability to keep time.

These stylistic and narrative choices illustrate the confusion and frustration that Anthony must feel. They place the audience in the same headspace, where we aren’t quite sure if these are real memories or imagined. However, Zeller does not give the viewer long to get comfortable in the current reality, changing the set seamlessly from a kitchen with brown drawers to one with white drawers.

Hopkins masterfully shifts his acting between jovial and charming to angry and combative. At other times, he is feeble and scared. This shift in tone and behaviour is so subtle that it doesn’t actually feel like a performance. Sometimes it is something as small as a slightly quivering lip, a slow shuffling as he wanders down the hall, or a slight change in posture.

At other points, Anthony rambles about his cruel and manipulative daughter — even while she stands next to him, her eyes filling with tears. He appears to age rapidly as the film progresses, but the audience is left uncertain as to the passage of time.

Glimpses of Anne’s struggle are shown throughout the film, along with the tension she has with her husband, who brings up the awkward suggestion of putting Anthony in an “institution.” She seems to be the one who carries most of the burden of her father’s care, and she has to make difficult decisions with little support from Paul. Like her father, she is frustrated and scared, and Colman’s heartbreaking and raw performance makes for a believable and tragic character.

Anne eventually hires Laura (Imogen Poots) as Anthony’s caregiver, and she reminds him of his other daughter, Lucy, who never visits. Laura is also subject to Anthony’s biting comments, but she is at first charmed by him, especially since she’s not quite sure which version of Anthony she will get each day.

The Father is one of the most accurate portrayals of dementia that I have seen. This accuracy is also what makes it painful. Near the end of the film, Anthony asks his nurse, “Who exactly am I?”

When this kind of illness appears, you don’t know what is going to become of your loved one any more than they do. You and the caregivers know who they are, but answering that question still hurts. Watching this film feels a lot like that. You are merely watching as it unfolds, and you know that you cannot change the ending.

The Father will likely stick in my mind for a long time because it hits close to home in two ways. Firstly, my own grandmother suffered from dementia. There were times when she could not recognize me, much like Anthony seems to confuse names and faces. Second, this loss of mental function is something that many people fear. It is frightening to think that it could happen to you.

The Father is simultaneously a dramatic examination of the loss of identity and of the psychological horror that accompanies it. It may be hard to watch, but it is absolutely a must-see.