Last night, I had the opportunity to watch The Father, a powerful psychological drama directed by Florian Zeller. The Father revolves around the relationship between a middle-aged daughter and her elderly father who suffers from dementia. The film offers a unique perspective on the symptoms of dementia by taking place entirely through the father’s eyes, providing the viewer with the chance to experience his conflicted perception of reality versus hallucination. Considering this, I felt that The Father merited a review since it brilliantly captures the struggles of senior citizens with dementia and their impact on family relationships.
The film opens with Anne (Olivia Colman) going to visit her father Anthony (Anthony Hopkins) in his London flat, where he is listening to opera music on his headphones. She informs him that his latest caregiver has refused to return to work since Anthony accused her of stealing his watch and was volatile towards her. He responds that he believes his watch was stolen since he cannot find it anywhere, but Anne suggests that he look under the bathtub since he normally hides his valuables there. Anthony ultimately finds the watch, but then reiterates that he hid his watch so that the caregiver would not steal it. This proves overwhelming for Anne, who states that she is moving to Paris with her new boyfriend and that she will have to move her father into a nursing home if he continues to refuse a caregiver.
It is clear from this exchange that Anthony is suffering from symptoms of dementia since he cannot remember important life events and where he leaves things around the flat. Nonetheless, he adamantly insists that he will not leave his home and accuses Anne of being “a rat leaving the ship” for moving to Paris, although she maintains that she will still visit him occasionally on the weekends. He asks where her sister Lucy is, prompting a frustrated Anne to reply, “You’re always asking about Lucy! She’s not here, but I’m the one who’s taking care of you!” She then leaves to go to the market, leaving Anthony alone in the flat.
When Anthony emerges from his room the next day, he discovers Paul (Mark Gatiss), a man whom he doesn’t recognize, sitting in the living room. He belligerently asks, “Who are you? What are you doing in my flat?” Paul replies that he is Anne’s husband and that this is their home, which sows confusion for both Anthony and the audience since we are initially led to believe that the story is taking place in his flat. In addition, Anne had previously told her father that she’d been divorced, which is bewildering since Paul claims to be her husband. Furthermore, he tells Anthony that Anne is on her way back from the market, but when the door opens, a different woman (Olivia Williams) enters the flat. Presumably, this is Anne’s sister Lucy, but Anthony does not recognize her and asks where Anne is, to which she replies, “What do you mean? I’m right here.”
We later see Anne reappear in her original manifestation with a new caregiver, Laura (Imogen Poots), to whom Anthony quickly takes a liking since she bears a strong resemblance to Lucy. He regales her with stories of his career as a professional tap dancer, but then displays a cruel streak when he tells her that she shares Lucy’s tendency of “laughing inanely.” In addition, he launches into a tirade accusing Anne of trying to convince him that he cannot live on his own so that she can move him into a nursing home and inherit his flat, stating that he will outlive her, and then concludes:
“I don't need any help from anyone. And I'm not going to leave my flat. All I want is for everyone to f*** off. Having said that... it's been a great pleasure. Au revoir. Toodle-oo.”
Anne is deeply shaken by her father’s malicious words, and it reinforces her doubts about the prospects of keeping him in her home with professional assistance. When Paul returns to the flat, he reappears as a different man (Rufus Sewell), which further contributes to Anthony’s uncertainty about what is reality and what he is imagining. Anne confides in Paul that when she came home earlier, her father did not recognize her, to which Paul replies that they must place Anthony in a nursing home since it is the best solution. Anthony overhears their conversation and joins them for dinner, but their time at the dining table is filled with significant tension since Anne is torn between a sense of responsibility for her father and her feelings of being overwhelmed with having to care for him. Meanwhile,Paul is extremely irritated by Anthony’s behavior, which he blames for Anne’s cancellation of a holiday that they had planned together.
As Anthony’s dementia progresses, his relationship with his family further deteriorates, as Paul confronts him and asks how long he will stay in the flat and continue to annoy everyone. This sequence repeats itself in Anthony’s interactions with the different versions of Paul, and on the second occasion, Paul slaps him in frustration, prompting Anthony to break down crying. In addition, he displays a belligerent attitude toward Laura as she tries to care for him; when she brings him his medication, he asks her, “Are you a nun?”, and when she replies “No,” he remarks, “Then why are you speaking to me as if I’m retarded?” During this exchange, Laura mentions the accident that Lucy died in, which triggers Anthony’s memory of finding his daughter in a hospital bed with blood on her face. The scene finally transitions to a bedroom in a nursing home, where Anthony is overwhelmed by his inability to understand his dementia and breaks down, stating:
“I feel as if I'm losing all my leaves. The branches and the wind and the rain. I don't know what's happening anymore. Do you know what's happening? All this business about the flat. I... I have nowhere to put my head down anymore. But I know my watch is on my wrist, that I do know. For the journey. If not, I... Don't know if I'll... be ready to, uh... To... To...”
He is then comforted by the nurse, who appeared earlier as both Anne and Laura, and she assures him that they will go for a walk in the park, promising that everything will be all right as the scene concludes.
The Father is a beautifully crafted and moving portrayal of how dementia affects the mindset of elderly individuals and their perception of reality. In many ways, the viewer can find similarities between this film and A Beautiful Mind, which captures the renowned mathematician John Nash’s struggle with schizophrenia, manifested in hallucinations of individuals who were entirely nonexistent. Anthony Hopkins delivers a superb Oscar-winning performance in the title role, brilliantly conveying the father’s various character nuances, including his confusion and his sense of denial. Olivia Colman also delivers a moving performance as Anne, capturing her feelings of responsibility and love, coupled with the overwhelming anxiety of trying to find the best care for her father in his fragile condition. Furthermore, Zeller’s filmmaking utilizes an innovative technique in capturing the symptoms of dementia by having the audience observe them firsthand through Anthony’s perspective, complicating their perception of reality versus imagination and thus enabling them to develop empathy for Anthony’s character.
Since many families have elderly relatives who struggle with dementia, The Father is a highly relevant film that strongly resonates with a wide range of viewers. Through its portrayal of the symptoms of dementia and its impact on family relationships, the film provides the audience with an opportunity to develop compassion and empathy for individuals with dementia, and hopefully it can give viewers the emotional strength to ensure that their relatives receive the best care while continuing to have the love and support of their families.