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Review: Memory is a cruel trick in masterful 'The Father'

Eric Webb
Austin 360
Olivia Colman and Anthony Hopkins match acting chops in "The Father."

When I read summaries of acclaimed film “The Father,” I wrinkled my nose. This is a movie that’s getting Oscar buzz? It sounds like any other prestige British sitting room drama: an elderly Anthony Hopkins type (played by Anthony Hopkins) struggles with memory loss as his daughter moves in.  

Kay, so, don't be me. Watch Florian Zeller’s “The Father,” which probably is best described in vague terms because any attempt to unpack it will spoil the experience. But here I am, unpacking, so feel free to bail on this review until after you watch. 

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Anthony Hopkins plays Anthony — told ya — a cantankerous old bull of a man still with an impish streak. We find out straight away that he’s suffering from dementia, and his daughter, Anne (played by Olivia Colman, just killing it) is struggling to care for him. He’s alienated his third nurse and accused her of stealing his watch.  

Anne has to leave London. She’s met a man, and Anthony is shocked, even cruel in his reaction. “You? In Paris?” he spits out incredulously. He guilts her. He says she’s abandoning him. It’s capricious, almost childlike. The irrational behavior is instantly recognizable: one of dementia’s worst indignities. 

"The Crown" and "The Favourite" star Olivia Colman trades in her crown for the weary look of a harried child of a dementia patient in "The Father."

Anthony asks where his other daughter is. He doesn’t get an answer, and neither do we right away, which seems to be the answer. Anyone who’s been around a loved one suffering in such a way knows Anne’s reaction by heart. Colman’s eyes — dark, glossy, close to bursting — give a hell of a line reading in silence. 

From there, “The Father” transforms continuously and imperceptibly, until you’re swimming in a genre-defying, wholly compassionate movie that won’t be forgotten. I dare not explain every turn Zeller’s film, which is based on his 2012 play “Le Père.” (He co-wrote the screenplay here, too.) Suffice it to say, the film plunges the viewer into the life of a man whose own mind has betrayed him. You’re both an outside observer and a firsthand participant, a feat of editing that also depends on pitch-perfect pacing and not a wink in sight from the cast. 

In “The Father,” no one is who they seem, even though you know they must be. Time isn’t linear — it rounds back on itself while still marching brutally forward. Life for Anthony is like a family photograph sketched from memory, and then redrawn again and again until it barely resembles the image he started with. 

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If “The Father” is a magic trick, Hopkins is Zeller’s rabbit — I was going to say beautiful assistant, but thought I’d spare you the mental picture. If the stalwart actor didn’t come out of the hat perfectly, there would be no “ta-da!” He’s called upon to cycle through every emotion — rage, horror, grief, joy, relief, confusion — and does so like he’s finessing an arcade game and about to beat the high score. As reality seems to persecute an old man in his twilight, Hopkins makes sure that we don’t just see pity porn. His character’s resolute commitment to his own rightness, his petty digs, they’re just as essential to his fullness as the tears and the panic.  

Colman’s role involves fewer fireworks, but her charisma simmers on low heat. Without a crown in sight, an actress most recently lauded for playing iconic queens disappears into Zeller's mystery. Her motives, under the accusatory fog of Anthony’s dementia, are always in question, even when the natural sympathies of the viewer gravitate toward that kind, familiar face.  

Yeah, it’s a sad one. No getting around it. We've seen memory loss play out to heart-rending effect is everything from tearjerker dramas like “Still Alice” to tearjerker superhero noirs like “Logan.” Dementia is one of life’s most senseless humiliations — the theft of a person’s self. No wonder we look toward films to help negotiate that pain. “The Father” is exceptional for its lavish empathy. All are victims of this crime, and the film endeavors to feel the sting from every direction. 

Stodgy sitting room drama, this ain’t. 

Eric Webb is the Austin360 entertainment editor. Email him at ewebb@statesman.com and follow him on Twitter @webbeditor.

Anthony Hopkins has already racked up award nods for his turn in "The Father."

'The Father'

Grade: A-

Starring: Anthony Hopkins, Olivia Colman, Mark Gatiss, Imogen Poots

Director: Florian Zeller

Rated: PG-13 for thematic material and some strong language

Running time: 1 hour, 37 minutes

Watch: In theaters March 12 and available on demand March 26