Imagine standing at the beach and feeling the disorienting sensation of sand slipping beneath the soles of your feet when the ocean waves recoil back into the sea. Imagine the slight heave of the heart one feels when grounding themselves into the earth, lest they get carried away into the waters.

The Father, a Sony Pictures classic Oscar season release, starring Anthony Hopkins and Olivia Coleman, amplifies the above-mentioned sensation ten-fold. Imagine that and you may get what Anthony (Hopkin’s character), a hale octogenarian, is going through.

Anthony is agitated at Anne, his least favourite daughter. She can’t visit him twice a day, she tells him, and plans to shift to Paris with a man she’s seeing. Anthony, his reactions fluxing between distress and insolence, argues that “they don’t even speak English in Paris” — a line he reiterates intermittently — and that he can take care of himself. To prove his point, he has just scared away his latest caregiver with the pretext of her stealing his watch.

Anne isn’t convinced; her exhausted expressions are enough to tell that this hasn’t happened for the first time. Minutes later, he walks back into the room with the watch he secreted away.

The Father is a dark, unsettling experience. It is not a thriller or a horror film, yet is scarier and more heart-pounding than either genre

Things are slightly different now. A man (Mark Gatiss, co-writer and co-creator of BBC’s Sherlock and Dracula) sits on his couch and introduces himself as Paul, Anne’s husband. But mere moments ago, didn’t Anne say that she was going away with another man to Paris?

Caught off-guard with a man he seemingly doesn’t remember — yet somehow remembers — Anthony tries to console him, but Paul isn’t buying it. Like Anne, we feel he’s already seen this. When Anne returns from the market with a chicken, she isn’t the Anne Anthony, and we, have seen before (the actress, this time for a brief scene or two, is Olivia Williams). Later, Paul is replaced with another Paul (Rufus Sewell), but there’s a marked difference in his attitude with Anthony. This Paul behaves like a son-in-law who has had enough of an old man.

The Father, adapted and directed by Florian Zeller from his acclaimed stage play Le Pare, is a dark, unsettling experience. It is not a thriller or a horror film, yet is scarier and more heart-pounding than either genre. Anthony is suffering from dementia, and we’re caught in his perspective. True life — or rather, a very intense simulation of it — in this case, is more malicious than make-believe stories.

Zeller, and his co-adaptor Christopher Hampton (Oscar winner for adapting Dangerous Liaisons, nominated for adapting The Atonement), have penned a disconcerting, funereal screenplay with a deliberate monotonic sequence of events. It’s like reliving a time-loop story, with a dramatically apparent, yet subtle, sleight of hand.

Things change, at once manifestly and imperceptibly. Antony often retaliates that Anne wants to frame him as a senile old coot so that she can take over his flat in London when, in reality, he has shifted over to her apartment. The difference between his place and hers is noticeable by trivial changes in lighting and production design. They are enough to warn your senses, as Anthony stops between rooms, losing his train of thought. By the middle of the film, his subconscious has realised that his sense of reality is warping in on itself, and his demeanour changes — he is petrified of being left alone.

Unlike routine tearjerkers about illness, where the audience witness lives from the spectator’s seat, here we’re caught in a paradoxical flux of inward and outward perspectives. We see time, space, days, nights, conversations as blocks of a Rubik’s cube, constantly shifting, as if by the crude and brutal fumbling fingers of fate. Anchored to Anthony, we see enough of everything to sympathise with him, Anne and Paul — and like him, we’re helpless.

This is not the first time Hopkins has played a man suffering from crippling mental illness — he played a genius suffering from Alzheimer’s in the John Madden-directed adaptation of the Pulitzer prize-winning play Proof — but here, there’s a certain, life-like pragmatism in the way he handles Anthony. People seem to forget that Hopkins is not just known for his over-the-top screen-chewing in Shakespeare’s Lear and Titus, or his many variants of Hannibal Lecter. Many years ago, he dabbled in refined melodramatic affairs in Howard’s End, Remains of the Day and Hearts in Atlantis.

His Anthony is a man of small, telling gestures for whom — as excellently put by the New York Times’ Jeanette Catsoulis — “senility doesn’t creep, but pounces on, and whose best recoil is to respond by freezing on the spot until it retreats.”

As scenes pass, we see a frail fragility developing in Hopkins’s portrayal, as he swerves hard from one emotional state of mind to another, shifting from cruel, scoring anger to bitter resentment to an old, physically healthy man desperate to survive. Despite his initial stance on independence, he wants to be taken care of. The experience is an amalgamation of whelming circumstances and, cinematically speaking, gratifying filmmaking in the worst context possible. One cannot — will not — be happy celebrating the astuteness of Zeller’s film, but celebrate it we must.

The Father is rated PG-13 and is nominated for six Academy Awards. Thoroughly recommended

Published in Dawn, ICON, April 4th, 2021

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