The darling of the last Academy Awards was Nomadland, a slow travel movie about homelessness directed by a Chinese Ethnic. A few years ago, Mank, a film about the writing of Citizen Kane, would have been the easy winner. But it does not check diversity boxes; David Fincher, the director, and the protagonist, Gary Oldman, are older white males. The film is also about an era when cinema was firmly elitist, and celebrates a movie, Citizen Kane, that has been the obsession of generations of filmmakers schooled on the charm (and undeniable excellence) of the Golden Age of Cinema.
But had it been the pre-1960s, The Father would have taken all of the awards. Like drama movies of that era, it plays like live theatre, thanks to its co-writer and director, Florian Zeller, a playwright. It is dialogue-heavy and is much more focused on developing its characters and delving deep into their sense of the world than conveying a plot. It is also the type of movie that could have only worked with exceptional acting.
Anthony Hopkins plays a character that shares his first name. A misanthrope that values his independence, he nonetheless has dementia. He is not just forgetting names and being occasionally confused about events. He has ceased to recognise faces and the very concept of time. He would assume it was night, but it is daytime. He could be living in a care facility or living with his daughter and her insensitive husband. He could have a daughter that has or has not died.
It is a brutal movie to watch, and this is mainly thanks to the impressive performance of Hopkins. He plays a person that shares his name, perhaps even his independence of character. But throughout the movie, we see him gradually being reduced to a child-like status, entirely at the mercy of others.
Seeing Hopkins go through this is devastating. We have rarely ever seen him play a helpless person. On the contrary, he was best known as a Shakespearean actor and then as Hannibal Lecter, the most infamous fictional serial killer. Lately, we have known him as Odin, a comic book god. When The Father begins, it is the highly regarded actor known for playing powerful characters that we meet. By the time it concludes, he is a helpless old man crying in a nursing home: “I want my mommy.”
Perhaps what best encapsulates the movie's theme is a quote from Hopkins himself last year, when he was asked about his religious views.
“As I get older, I can cry at the drop of a hat because the wonderful, terrible passion of life is so short. I have to believe there's something bigger than me,” he said when asked during a promo for his film, the Two Popes. “I'm just a microbe. That, for me, is the biggest feeling of relief – acknowledging that I am really nothing. I'm compelled to say, whoever's running the show, thank you very much."
Many were sad to find that Hopkins won the Best Actor award instead of Chadwick Boseman, who passed away last year, for his performance in Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom. It is understandable. The Academy Awards are just as much about appreciation as recognition of raw effort and talent. But make no mistake - Hopkins gave the best performance of the year, closely followed by Delroy Lindo in Spike Lee’s underappreciated Da 5 Bloods and Paul Raci in Sound of Metal.
It would have taken a playwright to frame powerful performances – by Hopkins and Olivia Colman – into a story. Zeller gives most of his attention to dialogue and finds ways to express his characters' emotions. The plot is not nearly as much a point of interest. In fact, by the end of the film, we do not know what is going on. There are no reveals. No bone is thrown for the audience to understand the actual circumstance of Anthony; just what the character observes and is experiencing.
It is a journey through the rabbit hole of dementia. It is unique but harrowing, and in the end, really depressing. But as Hopkins would probably say, it is also life.
PUBLISHED ON May 15,2021 [ VOL 22 , NO 1098]
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