Friday 11 June 2021

Mindgames: "The Father"

The last of this year's major Oscar winners to be set before UK audiences is a dementia narrative - but it's a dementia narrative with a twist. (Multiple twists, in fact, for better and worse.) Florian Zeller's adaptation of his own stage success The Father plays out, mostly around the one set, as something like a distractible Sleuth, a Deathtrap of the mind, putting the viewer in a place that represents an increasingly befuddled protagonist's headspace, and then setting us to wonder whether we, too, are losing our marbles. The place is the capacious Maida Vale flat of a retired engineer called Anthony (Anthony Hopkins), and it's apparently been decked out by the same interior designers who furnished the couple's flat-cum-sepulchre in Michael Haneke's Amour. Here's where the confusion starts. We enter in the company of Anthony's daughter Anne (Olivia Colman), who arrives to a) reprimand dad for scaring off a new nurse, and b) to gently break the news that she's leaving the UK to live in Paris with her new French lover; if Anthony doesn't behave himself around the next carer, she insists, she'll be left with no choice but to put him in a home. A scene break follows, and then Anthony's pottering is interrupted by Paul (Mark Gatiss), a diffident fellow with a vague Northern accent, who claims to be Anne's husband of ten years, and that this flat belongs to him and his wife; when this Anne comes through the door with bags of shopping, it's in the form of Olivia Williams. (One Olivia for another: it's less radical recasting than an agreeable substitution in an Ocado delivery box.) Zeller, clearly, is keen to destabilise this world, and to dramatise the dereliction of a once-fixed mind; the unusually provisional bonds between Anthony and these interlopers both mimic and mock those neural connections breaking down inside the lead character's head.

This bewilderment has been pulled off with unarguable skill by collaborators with impeccable credentials. Zeller, making his feature directorial debut after a much-laurelled stage career in his native France, sets a particular mood from the off, chiefly by scheduling most scenes to take place between twilight and dusk. (We ask: where has the day gone? And then: where have this man's days gone?) Christopher Hampton, the most illustrious of script associates, has punched up the mindgames, setting certain phrases to circle these rooms and heighten the general discombobulation. And then there is Hopkins, Oscar-garlanded once more. It isn't just the name: everything else about Anthony fits Hopkins' recent screen persona - that air of dotty distractibility that has crept into his repertoire, finding its most crowdpleasing expression in the actor's Instagram posts - like a finely tailored glove. Here is serious range: fluidly and persuasively, he shifts between states of confusion, tetchy and evasive with Colman, dippily charming around replacement nurse Imogen Poots, capable of both raging at the dying light and weeping like a child in the face of it. If The Father succeeds in shaking off elements of its earlier theatricality, it's because there are sequences where this flat appears to develop its own weather system, and it's Hopkins who conjures that system into existence. He's sunshine and light one minute, nothing but dark clouds ten minutes later - and in between there are long spells where this performance is ominously still. (Hopkins deserved the Oscar just for the extraordinary control he exerts over his own face, as finely tuned here as any thermostat.)

And yet ultimately, and for all the virtuosity in evidence, I was never quite as moved by The Father as advance word suggested I might have been. The ratio of smarts to emotion felt skewed to me; the film inserts Meccano where the reserves of empathy would normally go in a narrative such as this, and while I could admire the construction, the joists and cogs and pulleys in this script - the meticulous grand design of Zeller's storytelling - kept getting between me and these characters. Once you work out that at least some of those figures are figments of an unravelling imagination, it's simply very hard to know where to invest your sympathies. Granted, that issue becomes a little clearer the further in we get, but the film's appeal is still largely ludic: for much of the running time, we're invited to furrow our brows and work out which of these interactions are real (which is to say trustworthy within Zeller's fiction), and which are merely a consequence of the protagonist's loose screws. The rugpulling ramps up anew in the third act, building towards a final reveal that - for all the visible trappings of QBC (Quality British Cinema) - is pure B-movie. Sporadically, the actors cut through the chicanery, peel back some of the scaffolding. Colman's smile upon realising her dad is compos mentis when he tells her her hair looks nice will stay with me, as will a final flurry of Hopkins' most punchdrunk close-ups. But I found the rest far more self-contained and stuffy than I was expecting, given the emotive responses of friends and colleagues to it: an intellectual exercise premised on the death of the intellect, a well-crafted puzzle that's never allowed to get too far out of its box.

The Father opens today in cinemas nationwide.

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