The Father: A radically empathetic look at aging parents and dementia

The Father plays out almost like a psychological thriller, but one filled with emotion and empathy

The 2020 film The Father, starring Anthony Hopkins and Olivia Colman has been nominated for best picture, as well as lead actor for Anthony Hopkins, supporting actress for Olivia Colman, adapted screenplay, editing, and production design. The film tells the story of Antony (Anthony Hopkins), who is aging and starting to experience the effects of dementia. This leads him to feel very confused and fearful and paranoid, and he acts out in a number of ways, making life harder for his daughter Anne (Olivia Coleman) as she tries to care for him and make arrangements including at-home care. 

Another Father/Daughter Movie

Another 2020 film tackled the subject of dementia and Alzheimers, and explored the topic by looking at a father/daughter relationship affected by the disease. That film is the documentary Dick Johnson is Dead, though the two films couldn’t be more different in terms of tone. One is a documentary and a tribute in many ways to a real man, Dick Johnson, as his daughter Kirsten Johnson, also the film’s director, tries to come to terms with the reality that her beloved father won’t live forever. 

So, The Father clearly shares some common DNA, looking at family dynamics in similar situations, but The Father is different in some key ways.  Aside from the fact that it’s a narrative film, it also shifts the perspective. Dick Johnson is Dead is mostly from the daughters’ perspective, while in The Father we as the audience are in the head of the aging parent.

Equal parts poignant and thrilling

Director Florian Zeller puts the viewer directly into Antony’s headspace, and we understand the world just as he does. So when Antony feels scared or confused, we’ve just seen the same things he has and we feel scared or confused right along with him. In that way the film plays out almost like a psychological thriller, but one filled with emotion and empathy.

We at once completely understand Anne’s frustration that her father is lashing out at family members and can’t seem to keep a caretaker because of his erratic behavior, while at the same time we empathize with Antony because the world he’s experiencing is incredibly confusing. We begin to understand how devastating it is when you can’t trust your own mental faculties. This affects Antony’s sense of self over time and it wears on Anne as things seem to only be getting worse despite all the effort she puts in. 

Award-worthy on many fronts

Ultimately it’s a very strong film that is certainly deserving of the praise it’s getting. The psychological thriller elements serve to set it apart from other similar films, but it’s also unlike any psychological thriller I’ve seen because of the deep empathy created by the film’s unique vantage point. The whole time we as the audience are trying, just like Antony, to put the puzzle pieces together, but ultimately the puzzle is not the point. The films works on that level of trying to solve the mystery of what’s going on, but it also transcends that with the emotional experience of deeply empathizing with the lead character and the particular suffering caused by dementia. 

The screenplay, which writer/director Florian Zeller adapted from a play he also wrote, is phenomenal. The direction and production of the film are also among the strongest of the year, and you couldn’t hope for better performances than those given by Anthony Hopkins and Olivia Colman. This film is absolutely worth your time, and you may just come away with a new appreciation for the aging people in your life. 

The Father is now playing in theaters and available on demand to watch at home.

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