Director Florian Zeller’s The Father is a competently executed film about the difficult subject of Alzheimer’s disease; this is both its strength and its weakness. Its strength because, from my personal experience of a grandmother with Alzheimer’s, the film felt very accurate. Clearly, considerable time has been spent to get this onscreen representation of Alzheimer’s ‘right’. Its weakness because, to an extent, Alzheimer’s is all the film is about. The film at times is like a checklist for the symptoms and common issues relating to Alzheimer’s rather than an actual story. In other words, the film is too general rather than specific.
To understand the plot all you need to know is it’s about a ‘father’ with Alzheimer’s – from there it plays out exactly as you’d expect. Who exactly this film is for is a difficult question. As someone who has seen this incurable disease affect my family I got very little from this film, except that it is more accurate than some of the silly attempts we’ve had before (I’m looking at you The Notebook 2004). Unfortunately, the story never goes anywhere, it never finds a unique angle to tackle the Alzheimer’s disease. Instead, it all feels a little for the sake of it.
The problem lies in the interchangeable specificities of the film’s chosen context
The Father’s most useful function is educating those who have no direct experience of Alzheimer’s about the brutal reality of the disease. This is not a bad ambition but does taste slightly of a PSA rather than a narrative feature film. The problem lies in the interchangeable specificities of the film’s chosen context. The character’s wealthy economic situation, their jobs, the London setting, the set design are all unessential to tell this story. There is nothing about what this film is trying to do that requires any of these specificities, or if there is the film does a bad job at communicating it.
Zeller disguises this relatively well by making sure the chosen context is well-drawn and substantial. But the bottom line is that this exact same story could have been told with any moderately wealthy family anywhere in the western world. For me, I think the film has similar problems to Richard Linklater’s Boyhood, which falls into the trap of trying to be a definitive male coming of age story. The first half of that film works fine, but the second half becomes a checklist of generic teenage boy moments and in doing so protagonist Mason stops being an individual character. The Father is unfortunately very similar; the film is too interested in making sure it’s inclusive, so naturally the final result is somewhat vanilla.
Much praise has been given to the performances, particularly Anthony Hopkins, who won best actor at the 2021 Oscars for the central role of Anthony. Hopkins shows his versatility in the role, going from tender and jovial to being highly aggressive within short periods of time. The performance certainly is a little showy, but this is mainly due to an overwritten script and over-designed cinematography.
Frankly, there is not much here that couldn’t have been done on stage just as well or better
Every shot is properly composed and lit so does the job, but it’s all a little uninspired. Sadly, the cinematography results in a lack of reality because of being too concerned with creating perfect images. More needed to be done with the camera to justify The Father as a film rather than a stage play, which it originally was. Frankly, there is not much here that couldn’t have been done on stage just as well or better. The exception is perhaps some of the more radical changes to the set that indicate Anthony is becoming increasingly disorientated, yet overall the film is still very stagey, which is disappointing.
Despite The Father’s flaws it’s overall still a good film. The highlights are Anthony Hopkins scenery chewing performance and the way the film plays with the subjective POV of his character, giving an interesting insight into what it might be like to have the disease. This material could have easily been terrible provided its difficult subject, but thankfully it is treated with enough care to ensure the film is a legitimate onscreen take on Alzheimer’s.
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