ST. LOUIS — Anthony (Sir Anthony Hopkins) is certain of two things: He owns a flat in London and doesn't need any assistance from his daughter, Anne (Olivia Colman). Painfully, Anthony is wrong on both accounts.
What Florian Zeller's thought-provoking "The Father" does so well is immerse the viewer in this man's mind and not care to add extra melodrama to an already terrifying situation, thus allowing us to see his point of view as his mind starts to crumble. The trailer doesn't need to be played and a plot doesn't require a deep dive here. This film is as truthful as it is direct, but still well worth the watch. You don't get two towering acting showcases inside one picture like this often. I won't mislead you in saying this is a painful watch.
At the age of 83, Hopkins is as sharp as ever as a man standing as strong as one could against the thundering waves of dementia. Throughout Zeller's film, we're essentially following a man around a maze of his own design, or more importantly, the product of a fleeting mind. Unlike previous films, we aren't asked to feel sorry for or cuddle the afflicted Anthony; there's simply a front row seat to the unraveling of a once great mind. Hopkins is our guide, and he goes for broke. The man could have given a solid performance in his sleep, but chose to dive headfirst into this character's advancing trauma. Coupled with his increasingly joyful offscreen persona, it's becoming apparent that Hopkins can do anything.
"The Father" is adapted from Zeller's own play, which he adapted with Christopher Hampton, and it keeps you guessing. A dementia film that moves like a sophisticated thriller without ever changing its shade of color or giving a cheat code too early, the screenwriters don't allow the viewer to get too comfortable. There are moments in the film where you will wonder if Anthony is being manipulated, or if the people around him are simply trying to make him as comfortable as possible. I wouldn't call anyone here antagonists, only the noises and voices in his mind scratching away at a painting that Anne would call her father's life.
Colman, who gives the greatest award acceptance speeches, should at least be invited to the Oscar show, along with Hopkins. She matches the stellar performer beat for beat here, leaving the screen for a scene and then coming back as if she never left. How do you watch your father fade away? When we see the lovely Olivia Williams (labeled "The Woman" on IMDB) come into the film mysteriously, there's a part of us that thinks it is the older actress still sitting there. Another example of the filmmaker keeping you off-balance, but in a good way.
Williams, who looks like a young Colman already, gives weight to fleeting moments, making you wonder if the wall in Anthony's flat has two sides, or if it's just the way a mind looks when its empire is falling. Rufus Sewell has presence to spare and eyes that easily pierce, giving you the film's only real adversary, someone who attacks Anthony instead of searching for pity first. Mark Gatiss' lurking "Man" adds even more suspense, while Imogen Potts' Laura has a nice part that evolves over the brisk 94 minute running time. Zelller gets a lot done in a short amount of time, but "The Father" spares little power in getting somewhere quicker. Saying too much would spoil a great film.
Imagine having everything you know, including the very fabric of sanity attached to your soul, stripped away from you. How do you combat that? What if you don't want to take medicine only due to your mind suddenly lacking? The toughest moments of the film are also the most revealing, as Anthony remains too proud to ask for or accept legitimate assistance. Living in a world of denial, each in their own ways, Anthony and Anne try to find a way around a bridge cracking in old age.
Bottom Line: Hopkins and Colman put on an acting showcase in Florian Zeller's punishing yet provocative drama. Young actors should study these two.