‘The Father’ teaches through tears

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Film Critic Hunter Friesen reviews the new drama “The Father” starring Anthony Hopkins.

HUNTER FRIESEN

Move over “Suspiria,” “The Conjuring” and “Hereditary” – there’s a new film that has claimed the title as the scariest movie of the past decade. It’s not demons, witches or serial killers that make this new movie scary; it’s something that has affected our loved ones and may affect us in the future: dementia.

“The Father” is a triumphant directorial debut by Florian Zeller, who puts us within the deteriorating mental state of our main character, Anthony. We experience his confusion as if it were our own. The film also takes on the perspective of the caretakers who are left helpless as they try to aid Anthony in making sense of a world he cannot recognize anymore.

Zeller’s play “The Father” debuted in Paris in 2012 to rapturous reviews. Its success spurred an acclaimed Broadway run with Frank Langella winning a Tony award for his performance. Now Zeller, with the help of esteemed screenwriter Christopher Hampton, has taken his stage play to the screen.

At the center of the film playing the character of Anthony is veteran actor Anthony Hopkins (Zeller was so adamant about getting Hopkins for the role that he renamed the character specifically for him).

With a nearly 60-year career in the rearview, including notable roles as Hannibal Lecter in “The Silence of the Lambs” and Richard Nixon in Oliver Stone’s aptly named “Nixon,” Hopkins’ performance here may be his very best. He is charismatic, fierce and vulnerable, sometimes all at the same time.

If not for Chadwick Boseman’s untimely death and larger-than-life performance in “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom,” Hopkins would be the undisputed favorite to win his second Oscar this year.

The world we see is through Anthony’s eyes. Initially, his world is quiet and still, often filled with days listening to classical music in his luxurious London flat and taking walks in the nearby park. After a while, however, things slowly start to come apart. He’s displacing items more regularly, days are getting harder to separate and conversational details are getting lost in the shuffle.

One day, his daughter Anne (Olivia Colman) tells him she’s leaving London to go live in Paris with her new significant other. Feeling he’s being abandoned, Anthony is hurt by his daughter’s decision. The next morning, however, Anthony is still in his flat and has no recollection of Paris.

Maybe that conversation happened a long time ago or never happened at all. Maybe this isn’t Anthony’s flat — maybe it’s Anne’s and she’s taken him in to stay with her. Maybe she has a husband here named James (or is it Paul?) and she’s now being played by a different actress than before.

Like a Charlie Kaufman or Christopher Nolan film, Zeller plays with time and setting to tell his story. Conversations are repeated several times over from different perspectives, adding another level to the complex task of discerning what is fact and what is fiction.

Anthony’s physical surroundings seem to be rearranging at impossible speeds and the chronology of events is becoming increasingly muddled. Production designer Peter Francis and editor Yorgos Lamprinos deserve immense credit for their work here as their craftsmanship helps tell a complicated story.

The confusion and frustration that Anthony feels are equally placed onto us as we are never sure what is happening and what order it is happening in. It’s like watching a balloon being inflated and waiting for it to pop, yet it never does as your anxiety keeps building.

It’s a terrifying and heartbreaking process to watch as Anthony’s mood begins to darken. He never knows what is going to come next and what has just happened. He’s left in a perpetual state of fright and feels that everyone is out to get him.

Those around him are equally as confused and scared as he is. Anne doesn’t know what to do with her father and is fighting a losing battle of keeping an optimistic look at things. Colman, a recent Oscar winner for her role in “The Favourite,” acts somewhat as our guide through this mess. Imogen Poots, Olivia Williams, Mark Gatiss and Rufus Sewell all play well-cast supporting roles.

Like “Schindler’s List” and “Requiem for a Dream,” “The Father” is a superb film that you will only want to watch once. Its subject matter may hit too close to home for some viewers or be an introduction for others. No matter your familiarity, the film’s take on dementia and the toll it places on everyone involved is so incredibly well done that it demands to be seen.

Overall: 4/5