Review: With a great Anthony Hopkins, 'The Father' is a haunting exploration of dementia

Brian Truitt
USA TODAY

What would it feel like to not recognize your own daughter? Or find your home oddly becoming a place of strange discomfort? While movies often tackle the effects of dementia or Alzheimer’s on patients and their families, director Florian Zeller’s drama “The Father” reaches new heights by putting its audience up close and very personal with the confusion and palpable terror of losing one’s memory.

With exceptional filmmaking and Anthony Hopkins’ best performance since “Nixon,” “The Father” (★★★★ out of four; rated PG-13; in New York and LA theaters Friday, expanding nationwide March 12, on video on demand March 26) is an immersive character study of an elderly man struggling to rationalize his existence as he loses his grip on the people and things around him. But it’s also a moving exploration of how children become caretakers for their parents, with Olivia Colman turning in a standout role as a daughter weighing the hard decision about whether to live her own life or give it up for her dad.

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Zeller weaves in elements of psychological horror and even a mystery component to put his main character (and us) on edge constantly, and while the drama goes to some disturbing places (including incidents of elder abuse), at its core it is very much about love and the power of empathy.

Played by Hopkins, Anthony (yep, that's the on-screen elder gentleman's name, too) is an 80-year-old Londoner living in a posh apartment. He listens to classical music, has a favorite watch that doubles as a security blanket of sorts, yet can’t fend for himself anymore due to his ailing mental health. He also has a tendency to roll through caregivers, having threatened his last one, and Anthony’s daughter Anne (Colman) wants him to meet a new nurse because she’s soon moving to Paris with a new love. “You’re abandoning me. What is going to become of me?” a visibly freaked-out Anthony says.

Anthony Hopkins stars as a man with dementia trying to make sense of his constantly shifting reality in Florian Zeller's "The Father."

Soon after she leaves, he’s in the kitchen, hears a door slam and confronts a stranger (Mark Gatiss) sitting and reading a newspaper. This man Paul says he’s Anne’s husband, though this is news to Anthony. The old man suspects that Anne’s “cooking something” against him and wants to move him into a home, and his daughter comes through the door but it’s another woman (Olivia Williams) that he doesn’t recognize.

“The Father” just gets more unnerving from there as Anthony tries to make sense of it all while the film gradually reveals the cracks in his constantly shifting reality, and his personality veers wildly from moment to moment. When Anthony meets his new caregiver Laura (Imogen Poots), whom he thinks resembles his younger daughter Lucy, he flirts and does a little soft shoe yet on a dime turns on her and cruelly mentions that she shares Lucy’s “habit of laughing inanely.”

Hopkins is astounding when navigating all these various states of mind – from righteous anger to withering spitefulness to a child-like vulnerability – that play out as Anthony loses control of his life. Even though the part isn’t conventionally showy, Hopkins gets to touch every bit of the emotional spectrum and the result is as indelible a role as when Hopkins donned Hannibal’s mask and won an Oscar for “The Silence of the Lambs.”

The mental decline of Anthony (Anthony Hopkins) affects his daughter Anne (Olivia Colman) in "The Father."

Colman, a couple of years removed from taking best actress for “The Favourite,” is also understatedly superb as a woman dealing with all of this. And it all takes a toll:Paul (sometimes Gatiss, sometimes Rufus Sewell) resents Anthony’s presence and pushes Anne to do something about him, Anne has to smooth things over when Anthony insults his nurse, and most achingly, her father doesn’t even know who she is half the time.

Sneakily utilizing production design and uncanny good editing, “The Father” fascinatingly puts the viewer in the same state of distress as its main character. And in adapting his own play, the director’s carried over an intimate quality of a staged chamber drama to not just show a man dealing with dementia but also offer a way into his mind with a haunting, deeply affecting and quite memorable narrative.