Best Picture Nominee Takes Us Inside a Mind With Dementia
DIRECTOR: FLORIAN ZELLER/2020
Anthony knows something is wrong, but he can’t quite put his finger on it.
One moment, his daughter Anne (Olivia Colman) tells him she’s moving, but later she says that’s not true. He’s not sure who this man is in his apartment is, and he’s not sure why his home looks different than he remembered. He’s certain his daughter and her husband are trying to take it away from him, and he doesn’t know whom he can trust anymore. What Anthony (Anthony Hopkins) doesn’t know: He has dementia, and Anne is as overwhelmed trying to figure out how to take care of him.
If you’ve never been close with someone suffering from progressive memory loss, The Father may feel like a strange film. Anthony is one of the most unreliable narrators I’ve ever seen on screen, and his personality changes by the scene. Many of the filmmaking choices are strange as well. Why do some actors play several roles? Why do those characters change personalities? Are we jumping forward and backward in time? Why is the apartment one long continuity error, with changing décor and a confusing floor plan?
If you are one of the many millions (perhaps billions) of people who have watched someone you love suffer from dementia, you’ll realize almost immediately what is happening. Depending on the stage of the disease, you may have already witnessed scenes just like these hundreds (perhaps thousands) of times over. I know this because I have lost both of my grandmothers to this condition before they lost their lives. When we buried my father’s mother, I felt like I’d been saying goodbye for three years. Though I missed her as much as ever, it was almost a relief to see my grandfather finally given a respite. In the last year, I’ve watched my mother attempt to manage her own mother’s wellbeing during COVID, which has included moving her out of our home into an assisted living facility; switching her to a second residential facility able to keep up with the growing demands her care; and waiting months to visit because of COVID restrictions.
I did not rush to watch The Father because I expected it would be a difficult watch. I was more than correct. Much like the disease, The Father’s tension and anguish builds with time—I cried for the last 20 minutes and then another 20 minutes after I turned off my TV. I had just relived many moments and near-identical conversation in my family’s recent history, most of which I was ready to leave behind. But this film also gave me something I’d never had: a taste of what my grandmothers have experienced.
If this weren’t the last chance for the Academy Awards to honor Chadwick Boseman—for a worthy performance, no less—I’d be rooting for Hopkins. In perhaps the most extraordinary performance of the year, he puts us in a dementia-addled mind and believably portrays all of the mood swings and personalities with it. His gentle nature morphs in a moment to a ludicrous paranoia; at times he’s a winsome entertainer, but then he falls into an infantile temper tantrum. The rest of the cast (including Mark Gatiss, Imogen Poots, Rufus Sewell, and Olivia Williams) brings their A-game, but with their limited screen time and so few of them altogether, this film belongs to Hopkins alone.
Behind the screen, we can thank French playwright Florian Zeller, who is adapting his own play and directing his feature debut. (Side note: I’m not sure if the Academy has ever recognized this many Best Picture noms from relatively new feature directors—all but Mank are first, second, third, or fourth films.) Sets constantly change but echo each other; the ordering and editing of scenes is innovative; the casting choices are brilliant. I’m staying vague because part of the power of this film comes in many tiny, heartbreaking twists, but suffice it to say, Zeller breaks his play out of its stage conceit to make something only possible on film. But all decisions serve the same function: to help you understand what it’s like to live with dementia.
There are many ways to suffer in this world, but dementia adds cruel twist: It hardly lets its victims know they are suffering. Torture of its victims is subtle, gaslighting its victims into a non sequitur laundry list of beliefs, then changing those lies on a whim. Victims’ minds live in the most dangerous kinds of blind ignorance. Its torture of the victim’s families is flagrant, gaslighting them to believe someone they love has become more selfish, more foolish, and more bitter than they ever thought possible, then teasing hope for the return of the person they once knew. It plagues carers with nagging guilt and an increasing workload that turns into overwhelm: How selfish am I that don’t I want to care for someone I love? Shouldn’t I know how to help someone I have known my whole life? Why do I lose my patience so easily?
The Father captures all of those experiences in its mercifully short 97 minutes. It convicted me of my own impatience with my grandmothers, showed me compassion for my many shortcomings, and most importantly, restored personhood to victims of the disease, including two grandmothers I never thought I’d be able to connect with again.