First time filmmakers delivering quality debut features has been a staple of this year’s award season with Emerald Fennell’s Promising Young Woman and Regina King’s One Night in Miami… as standouts.
Dramatist Florian Zeller has also become a name to watch in cinema, adapting his critically acclaimed stage play for the big screen and earning five Academy Award nominations including Best Picture, two acting nods and best adapted screenplay.
The Father finds Anthony trying to maintain his independence in spite of his advanced age while his daughter Anne hopes to find a caretaker to help him with his daily life. As he balks at the help of others, Anthony finds himself doubting those around him, his own mind and even reality itself.
At the core of the film is a terrifically nuanced turn from Sir Anthony Hopkins, for whom Zeller wrote the titular role and named the character after. The Oscar winner is especially adept here at guiding audiences through the tonal shifts in the drama through his performance, which finds Anthony more and more unsure of himself over time.
Hopkins uses the non-verbal to communicate these changes with both a widening or narrowing of his eyes to give viewers clarity into Anthony’s mental state, but also in his physicality as Hopkins’ gait, shoulder movement and posture inform the larger picture that Anthony’s words cannot express.
This is especially true as Anthony meets (or more likely re-meets) characters throughout The Father as Hopkins expresses an individuality to each interaction that matches the mood of the scene and yet allows for Anthony’s fading memory to befuddle or confuse things.
Hopkins’ strongest moments come opposite Olivia Colman as Anne. The pair have an ability to emotionally express how Anthony’s situation has become a burden onto Anne, but in a way that shows off a deep-rooted bond somewhere between comradery and love.
Zeller’s screenplay is ripe with emotionally taxing yet fulfilling moments that genuinely display the effects mental illness have on the elderly and those who love them. Where it turns from solid script to truly inspired drama, however, is during a second viewing of the film as the pieces are all assembled and early moments take on new meaning with greater context.
The Father has a very large influence from its theater roots, often feeling immensely small in scale with dialogue-intensive exchanges in tight quarters.
But the film becomes something much more in its cinematic form thanks to expert, Academy Award nominated editing from Yorgos Lamprinos. Scenes are tied together in such a way – always from Anthony’s perspective – that audiences wander through the film trying to piece together its mysteries like how Anthony attempts to understand an everchanging environment.
In its stage form, it would be difficult for characters to melt in and out of the action in the same way they do in Zeller’s film. A simple, well-timed cut away masks this process and allows scenes that would change dramatically on stage to occur without incident.
The fact that the editing enhances viewers’ understanding of Anthony’s mental and emotional predicament is astounding and very similar stylistically to Tara Miele’s indie fantasy drama Wander Darkly.
Visually, The Father suffers slightly from Zeller’s shot construction and staging as his eye for the theater can cause imbalanced framing with slightly askew cameras positioned over the shoulder of actors as they are blurred at the edge of a frame to highlight another.
The Father is a strong contender this Sunday at the Academy Awards with Hopkins a co-frontrunner for Best Actor alongside the late Chadwick Boseman for Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom. Colman, a recent Oscar winner herself, could be a surprise as well in supporting actress although she is likely running third behind Yuh-Jung Youn in Minari and Maria Bakalova in Borat Subsequent Moviefilm.
A solid drama with compelling lead performances, The Father certainly deserves the honors it has been bestowed this awards season although it’s safe to say that Zeller’s film could wait until a reasonably priced home viewing rather than premium on-demand rental or a trip to the theater.