The Father (TIFF 2020) starring Anthony Hopkins

PLOT: An elderly man (Anthony Hopkins) struggles with dementia as he tries to remain independent.

REVIEW: Has any performer ever been as consistently good as Anthony Hopkins? With something like sixty years of excellent performances under his belt, something is amazing about how, unlike so many of his contemporaries, he always gives every part his all, and as he enters his eighth decade of life, he seems bent on delivering some of the best work of his career. First, there was last year’s THE TWO POPES, and now there’s THE FATHER, which ranks up there with AMOUR as one of the most uncompromising depictions of aging ever made.

What makes Florian Zeller’s THE FATHER so effective is that, throughout much of the running time, we’re made to feel the way Hopkins’ character does. He’s confused, and so are we. The film starts with his daughter, played by a riveting Olivia Colman, telling him that she’s moving to Paris to be with her new boyfriend, but then, in another scene telling him that she’s doing nothing of the kind and is married to a man in London. Her husband is alternately played by the sympathetic, but frustrated Rufus Sewell, while at other times he’s played by Mark Gatiss, who slaps him around. He’s not even sure who his daughter is, with her sometimes played by Colman, and other times by Olivia Williams, while Imogen Poots plays a caregiver who, actually, might be another of his daughters.

While based on his own stage play, Zeller and co-screenwriter Christopher Hampton open THE FATHER up to make it quite cinematic, and the result, which places you firmly in the mindset of a man with dementia is occasionally frustrating – by design. It’s a skilled feature debut for the director, with a smooth big screen look that takes advantage of some really beautiful lensing and production design.

The acting is superb, with Hopkins veering from being obstinate and perhaps even abusive, to utterly pathetic as he cries for his mommy, to elegant and charming, only to turn on a dime. It ranks up there with his best performances and seems sure to land him an Oscar nomination. Meanwhile, Colman is deeply humane as his daughter, who’s selflessly putting her life on hold, while Sewell is sympathetic as the partner who, on the one hand, wants to enjoy his life and be free of his father-in-law, but on the other, seems aware that his wife really has no choice in the matter.

It all builds to a very bittersweet ending that says a lot about how we, as a society, still don’t really know how to deal with our aging population – a problem which will only likely get worse and hits pretty close to home for this reviewer. I live in Quebec, and recently the elder-care network went through a COVID-19 related scandal and made many think about how badly the industry needs an overhaul. THE FATHER is a sobering reminder that, even if everyone has the best intentions, the person in question often won’t be capable of appreciating this and, at the end of the day, there are no easy answers.

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