‘The Father’ Asks: How Good Could The Best Movie About Dementia Possibly Be?

With its limited settings, intimate cast, and fractal structure, The Father seems almost specifically designed to drive a quarantined audience insane. Anthony Hopkins plays Anthony, a charming old London pensioner just barely holding onto reality as his mind deteriorates from dementia. The film is a hallucinatory, constantly remixing kaleidoscope of domestic scenes, putting you firmly inside the mind of this sad, disintegrating old man. It’s a staggeringly brilliant film and I can’t imagine why anyone would enjoy it.

Anthony lives alone in his apartment, or maybe with his daughter Anne, or possibly in a nursing home. Anne is mostly played by Olivia Colman from The Favourite, but sometimes Olivia Williams from Rushmore. (Now that I’m writing this I do appreciate on a conceptual level them both being named Olivia). Anne has a boyfriend, or possibly a husband, played by Mark Gatiss or Rufus Sewell depending on the scene, with whom she’s either living unhappily in London or going off to see in Paris. “Paris? They don’t even speak English there!” Anthony scoffs.

Dementia, or Alzheimer’s, which my own grandmother died from some years back, is a disease that turns loved ones into strangers and vice versa, in which the sufferer gets trapped in a time-loop of their own obsessions. They repeat the same stories, ask the same questions, get confused and angry, and usually end up taking that anger out on the ones who love them the most — those are invariably the ones nearby, trying to help them through it. Occasionally, their disconnect from cold reality allows them to regress into some hopeful, energetic younger incarnation. For Anthony, his obsessions include his other daughter, Lucy, who he says over and over was always his favorite, believing it to be a genuine revelation he’s having in that moment. There’s also a lost wristwatch, a nurse who looks like Lucy, and Anne’s hard-to-keep-track-of love and work life. The Father repeatedly evokes that grinding embarrassment of hearing a loved one about to launch into a familiar story that will only affirm their worst qualities.

Anthony Hopkins is perfect in the role, vacillating between dreamy, confused, sad, angry, suspicious, and lonely. He expresses so much with his pale, blue eyes. Likewise, Olivia Colman is the same generational talent she’s been in all of her recent roles (the film was nominated for four Golden Globes including best picture, best screenplay, best actor for Hopkins, and supporting actor for Colman). The features of dementia are eerily accurate and cleverly conveyed — how better to simulate the feeling of your loved ones becoming strangers than to have the actors constantly switching roles? The film, directed by Florian Zeller from his own play, repeats entire scenes and snippets of conversation, like the choruses of a song, to the point that you’re almost humming along by the third or fourth repetition. “Paris? They don’t even speak English there!” It’s almost a call-and-response gag.

It’s elegant, intelligent, inventive — and yet all in the service of realistically putting us in the shoes of a lonely old man trapped inside a non-descript apartment while he slowly loses his mind. I can’t imagine anything worse. Or any life I’d less rather experience vicariously right now than someone else stuck inside the same few interiors, seeing the same three or four people.

I want to appreciate the artistry of The Father but I can’t quite fathom the gesture. It’s a showcase for the storyteller but what does the audience get out of vicariously blubbering into our nurse’s shoulder? It’s like watching someone pull the wings off of a fly, but not gratuitous enough.

Dick Johnson Is Dead remains one of the only good movies about dementia, probably because it offers a framework for magical thinking. Despite ostensibly being a documentary, it attacks the inherent claustrophobic loneliness of dementia by being expansive, by being fantastical, with stimulating and inventive scenes that are just as emotionally accurate, but also insightful and life-affirming. The Father is brilliantly structured and executed, but in the end it’s just a cleverly constructed way to depict the mundane. It never finds that level of the fantastic or allows for the kind of magical thinking necessary to escape its dreary reality. Ultimately it wallows in the pathetic. Who needs this?

‘The Father’ is now in theaters and streaming via VOD. Vince Mancini is on Twitter. You can access his archive of reviews here.