Anthony Hopkins delivers tour-de-force portrait of senile dementia in The Father

While 2020 has been a tough year for the movie industry, the Woodstock Film Festival managed to pull off its annual iteration last week with a hearty combination of online streaming and live screenings at three different area drive-in theaters. The latter were so successful that it seems likely that there will be demand for more of the same, even after a Covid vaccine has made it safe to go back to the cinema. Honking your car horn and flashing your headlights constitute the new form of applause, it seems.

As usual for this “fiercely independent” festival, the offerings leaned heavily toward promoting awareness of small-budget indie productions often overlooked by mainstream audiences. But there’s always at least one title on the menu that qualifies as Oscar bait, and this year that movie was The Father. Industry scuttlebutt has Sir Anthony Hopkins easily claiming the 2020 Best Actor statuette (or perhaps having it delivered to his home, with proper sanitary precautions), and I for one would honk for such an outcome. It’s truly the role of a lifetime, capping a most distinguished career.

Starting out in stage roles in England in the early 1960s, Hopkins had a lucky break understudying Sir Laurence Olivier in a Strindberg play in 1967. Olivier got appendicitis, and Hopkins got to step in, much impressing the venerable actor, who later wrote that his replacement “walked away with the part of Edgar like a cat with a mouse between its teeth.” A year later, Hopkins made his first strong impression on film playing the young Richard the Lionheart, a pawn in the power squabbles between Henry II (Peter O’Toole) and Eleanor of Aquitaine (Katharine Hepburn) in The Lion in Winter.

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Blessed with such mentors, along with natural talent, Hopkins played Antony to Judi Dench’s Cleopatra at the National Theatre and starred as Dr. Dysart in the original Broadway production of Equus. On the big screen, he quickly racked up a string of classic portrayals, including Dr. Treves in The Elephant Man, C. S. Lewis in Shadowland and two Merchant/Ivory films, Howard’s End and The Remains of the Day.

He could easily have stuck to the “eminent British actor” jam and retired decades ago with a mountain of accolades, but Hopkins crossed over into horror, fantasy and science-fiction genre work that broadened his fame with younger audiences. Most notably, his Academy Award-winning turn as Hannibal Lecter in The Silence of the Lambs tops many “Scariest Movie Villain Ever” lists. More recently, he has played Odin in various Marvel movies, nailed the role of the diabolical theme-park designer Robert Ford in HBO’s Westworld , and returned to period drama as Benedict XVI in The Two Popes on Netflix.

How does an aging actor top a CV like that (which leaves out a raft of stellar roles)? Either he storms about some prestigious stage as King Lear or Prospero (been there, done that already), or he takes on the challenge of portraying dementia in a contemporary context. In the past decade, women have been showing how it’s done: Emmanuelle Riva in Amour (2013), Julianne Moore in Still Alice (2015). Now it’s Hopkins’ turn, and in The Father, he draws us right inside the failing mind of an elderly man, also named Anthony. He’s front-and-center in nearly every scene, crumbling before our eyes even as he exudes sporadic bursts of charm and cruelty. It’s a majestically pitiable performance.

He gets ample help from the originality of approach of neophyte director Florian Zeller, author of the 2012 stage play on which the movie is based, Le Père, and from a supporting cast of A-list British thespians. Art directors Amanda Dazely and Astrid Sieben and set decorator Cathy Featherstone also deserve considerable credit, since Anthony’s ever-fuguing point of view is conveyed in part by the way the layout and décor of his flat (or is it his daughter’s?) keep shifting from scene to scene, along with the view from its windows.

To preserve our empathy for a man who has entered the hostile, confrontational stage of Alzheimer’s disease, the audience is kept as wrongfooted as the protagonist, with several mutually contradictory alternate plotlines competing for our belief. Is Anthony still living, as he believes, in his own flat, or in his daughter Anne’s? Is Anne divorced and getting ready to leave the country, or still married? And if the latter, which of the two actors playing her husband (Rufus Sewell and Mark Gatiss) is the real one? Is Anthony’s other daughter Lucy – to whom he keeps comparing Anne unfavorably – alive or dead? And what’s the deal with all these home-care aides Anne keeps hiring, who keep being driven off by Anthony’s deranged tirades?

As outstanding, vulnerable and granular as Hopkins’ performance is here, this movie could not have held up nearly as well as it does without a comparably stellar actor in the role of the much-put-upon Anne. Olivia Colman – a Best Actress winner in her own right two years ago for The Favourite  – brilliantly delivers a daughter torn between deep affection for her delusional father on the one hand, and exhaustion, exasperation and a need to get on with her own life on the other. She’s the surrogate for our compassion as we watch Anthony’s cognitive capacities disintegrate.

The genius of this film is that it lets us experience his decline from the inside out. While this may be remembered as Hopkins’ finest hour on film, it’s the dynamic between two outstanding actors that ultimately makes The Father a memorably poignant, compelling piece of onscreen drama. Limited theatrical release is scheduled for December 18, just in time for Academy Award eligibility. You’ll be able to stream it online as well.

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