Deep-diving into dementia surely isn’t anyone’s idea of a good time — it’s an unusual experience in the dramatic arts in that it’s even more upsetting when it’s done well. The Father, Florian Zeller and Christopher Hampton’s adaptation of Zeller’s play (originally in French, translated into English by Hampton), is upsetting indeed, a string of traumatic episodes in the life of an elderly widower (Anthony Hopkins), seen predominantly through his increasingly dementia-addled perspective. Despite failing to shed some of the more problematic stylistic and structural aspects of its origin as a theatrical work, this is a sensitive and handsomely acted film that navigates its tricky thematic terrain with nuance and intricacy.

Anthony (Hopkins), in his early eighties, lives by himself in a cushy flat in Central London. He’s a retired, widowed engineer and a father to Anne (Olivia Colman). He also suffers from dementia and, as is typical from sufferers of this callous condition, is only somewhat aware of this fact, ever less aware as it worsens. Anne, frustrated by her father’s prideful attempts to elude in-home nursing care by humiliating one nurse after another until they resign, decides to move him in with herself and her partner Paul (Rufus Sewell) in their own Central London flat, strikingly similar in style and layout to his own.

From there, things predictably worsen — once dementia takes hold of a person, its grip is impossible to loosen — though Anthony’s perception of things doesn’t quite progress in sync with the reality of them. Zeller communicates the disorienting confusion of a mind effectively shutting down and rotting within an otherwise conscious, healthy person by jumbling the chronology of his film and shuffling its actors and locations with no warning. A scene that starts simply and comprehensibly may suddenly sidle into something baffling and unexpected — a new face on an old character, a new room behind an old door, a memory playing out in the present as though time were circling back on itself. Anthony is caught not so much in a loop as in an infinite tangle of thoughts, memories and emotions, one he’s hopelessly incapable of charting with any semblance of surety.

So sadly unknowable are so many of the mind’s processes that accurately recreating the conditions of the experiences of a person with dementia may be an impossible task, though Zeller’s effort here is quite satisfactory. He delineates if not the specific circumstances then at least some specific circumstances to explain the confusion inherent to dementia, the emotional volatility, the deep, draining grief of a person losing themselves. Zeller’s depiction of this ignominious decline isn’t overly myopic, however — he approaches his portrait of Anthony from both the father’s own position and from Anne’s, developing her character to the extent that she essentially co-anchors the film for its first two acts, which elicits audience investment in her wellbeing. After all, she’s bearing an enormous burden whether she chooses to care for her father or leave him in the hands of nursing home staff.

Yet for all that it traverses rough, uncomfortable emotional landscapes, there’s a certain simplicity to The Father that undermines its hard truths, at times rendering them more like manipulative artistic devices than faithful depictions of ugly realities. It’s not without levity — a welcome detail — though this sometimes manifests as sweet sentimentality and dramatic contrivance. Once the narrative has stopped circling around itself and arrived at the gut-wrenching brick wall that is the inevitable loss of almost all normal cognitive functioning, the full weight of this contrivance has borne down a little too heavily on a story that’s richer in insight and understanding than such easy narrative shortcuts might suggest — one realizes that the film has ticked off all the expected boxes for the conventional terminal illness storyline, even if it’s done so with compassion and intelligence. There’s also a lingering theatricality to the dialogue, still slightly too verbose to pass for credible real-world repartee, alongside a formulaic stage structure that only compounds the predictability. There’s something to be said for simply sticking the camera before your actors and serving up a slice of canned theatre — Zeller and Hampton opt for a full-bodied transformation into cinematic form but only halfway complete the process.

If The Father’s writers keep one foot on the stage throughout their adaptation, the film’s actors are all in, body and soul and both feet. Hopkins and Colman respond keenly to their richly developed roles, every performance decision informed by palpable empathy and abundant in nuance. The accomplished cast is rounded out by Mark Gatiss, Imogen Poots, Rufus Sewell and Olivia Williams, tasked with a multitude of parts between themselves with nary a false note to be found among any of them. As with most stage-to-screen productions, this is an acting and writing showcase; for the most part, the material is there for this talented ensemble to capitalize upon. And even when it’s not, this is still a smart, satisfying exploration of compelling subject matter, universally well-acted and undeniably well-intentioned.

Fuller and more complex than its ostensible limitations might suggest, this drama is characterized by fine detail, fabulous acting and a few flaws.
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