“The Father,” directed by Florian Zeller based on his play of the same name, appears that it could be a horror film. Tense, moody, claustrophobic yet eerily comic, it is difficult and unsettling.
Anthony (Anthony Hopkins) is an aging engineer in an upscale London home. There are plaster busts on the mantle. The walls display stylish prints and paintings with character. At first glance it seems that Anthony is positioned at the height of comfort, secure and safe. But then his daughter Anne (Olivia Colman) arrives to give him news. She’s going to Paris. She met a man and can no longer take care of him. Anthony is understandably shocked. Hours later, Anthony hears something: an intruder in the house. Anthony sees a balding sarcastic man (Mark Gatiss) who insists that Anthony is a guest in his house that he tolerates at Anne’s request.
The man calls Anne on the phone. Anne returns with groceries for a planned dinner, while Anthony goes to get his watch. When he steps back in the room, Anthony is confounded. The man is not in the room and there are no groceries. Anthony mentions Paris. Anne says she has no intention to live in Paris.
Anthony starts to wheeze, the color draining from his face.
Something is indeed conspiring against Anthony. Is it the gray-blue museum-like apartment or a tangle in Anthony’s mind?
Anne tries to hire an aide to care for her volatile father. Here is Laura (Imogen Poots), vivacious and blonde. Would Laura like an aperitif? Anthony means to get his watch. Surely it’s time for a drink?
Here Hopkins gives a tour de force performance in the span of about five minutes from affable good cheer and absolute euphoria, to mocking derision and disgust. Hopkins’ pace and momentum is breathtaking. When he delivers the final cutting blow to Laura, the effect is chilling and almost scary.
The London apartment is shown in both stately and moody tones, expressing both cheer and malevolence. The interior rooms portraying a cozy and spatial elegance also hint at Hopkins’ previous film “The Remains of the Day.”
The film emphasizes confusion and unease. Is Laura real? Or a figment of Anthony’s imagination. After all, there is no Laura to be seen anywhere after dispensing Anthony’s pills. All of a sudden Paul (Rufus Sewell) sits in a chair looking at his phone, smug and dismissive: “Just how long do you intend to get on everyone’s tits?”
The scenes masterfully enfold upon the other and at times the narrative feels like the Gothicism of Charlotte Perkins Gilman rather than E.M. Forster. We might have minimal background on Anthony, who wants to hold on to his apartment, but we know precious little about anyone else who appears on film. The audience-member is put in the role of a senile voyeur.
This film makes for disturbing viewing with scenes of violent slapping, slicing ridicule and perfunctory parricide, but it is also direct and delicate. Anne truly loves her father but is at her last nerve.
One singular scene encapsulating Anthony’s return from his travels, is beautiful in its power to shock.
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