There is a pleasing intricacy to how the Father is constructed. The narrative bends in intelligent ways, ways that slowly reveal a larger intent. This structural dexterity, primarily enforced through dialogue, is used to invoke subjectivity. This is both subjectivity of meaning but also an internal subjective state as the film tries to align itself with the eponymous father, Anthony (Anthony Hopkins), a man suffering from a degenerative condition (seemingly dementia).
This is all laudable and very impressive. As a narrative, The Father is a spellbinding work. We start out very simply and naturally: Olivia Coleman’s Alice, the daughter of Anthony, tells her father that she can’t look after him any longer. We sense that there must be a history or a weight behind these words, yet they are introduced without context. Jumping into this point makes her decision seem cruel, it makes Anthony feel much more vulnerable and it is the first example of what the film is trying to do. The lack of context is not to demonise Alice, as the viewer we work out all of the context later, the aim is to replicate the experience of Anthony. We have as much context as he has, the in medias res opening is actually deeply purposeful.
This all becomes clear when the film starts to behave uncannily, or ethereally. What appeared to be a straight forward (and rather Oscar baity) drama reveals itself to be a more experimental and interesting work. We are thrown again, as a viewer, as we meet a man in the apartment and wait to find out who he is. He introduces himself as Alice’s husband, and claims that he lives there. He is, seemingly, as new to Anthony as he is to us – aligning our perspectives – but he is also an impossibility. His existence contradicts the previous scene where Alice had no husband, not any more – that’s why she was leaving, she had met somebody else. But now her husband is here and, soon, she is on the phone – and nobody accepts that she just told Anthony she was going away, that she was leaving him. And then Alice arrives, and its a different actor.
This is an utterly beguiling sequence and it sets the tone beautifully for what is to come. As the audience, we are always pushed away from truth – never knowing if what we see is what is actually happening and never knowing what we can believe. It is an effective state of disorientation that is occasionally heightened by eerie sound cues (at one point, actually, there is a beautiful use of a classical track where the same sense of disorientation is used from revealing that what was seemingly non-diegetic music is actually diegetic – it is just that Anthony was listening to it, another smart way of aligning us to his perspective) and subtle camera movements. At points, the camera does the thing that Altman did so well in Gosford Park, moving incredibly subtly, just enough to create a sense of unease. It just doesn’t quite do this enough.
Again, as a purely narrative work – and as a screenplay – this is spectacular. The way that it plays with storytelling conventions is superb. It relies on the audience’s understanding of narrative structure to continually wrongfoot them. Events happen out of order but we only realise they are out of order later, as we realise we are stuck in a sporadic loop where we can never gain understanding. The effect of this is close to profound, but the focus on dialogue over wider cinematics does keep the film at an arm’s length. This work becomes something to admire and appreciate as opposed to one to get totally swept up in. Because, while the film speaks well, it rarely speaks cinematically – or cinematically enough. There are fleeting moments where the language of cinema is deployed as effectively as the language of narrative, but the filmic dexterity does not match the fluidity of the screenplay.
Ultimately, this is a film with one magic trick: the fractured, slowly coalescing narrative. It is a great tick that it plays very well, but it has a limit. There also comes a point where you realise the wonderful subjectivity, that so impressively evokes the condition the film explores (in a way that is geared at creating empathy, it understands the viewer will never truly understand), is being used to drive towards objectivity. There is a point towards the end where it all comes together, where the film rather than pushing the magic trick further decides to show you how it was done. It means you get closure and an emotional climax, but it means that you are robbed of something more widely experimental and experiential.
There are also some rough edges here that conflict with the aim. The film tries to subjectively position yourself with Anthony yet the impossible narrative eventually makes complete sense. You know why you are experiencing things in the wrong order and with the wrong people – meaning you now know what Anthony never will. This pulls you away from him, and this is perhaps a smart way of reminding the viewer that they are an observer: an empathetic viewer that, again, can never truly understand. But, the film also betrays this earlier – by showing us private moments Anthony couldn’t see to make the narrative much clearer, in a way that doesn’t actually make sense with the final reveal. Even this sentence seems strange though, as there is a final reveal and this does not seem like the kind of film that should have that. This is a very smart film and a beautiful evocation, but it can’t just be smart on screen. It wants to tell you how smart it is.
Where a more confident, and actually more intelligent work, would relish ambiguity – and allow the audience to put pieces together – this film sacrifices subjectivity for pathos. Admittedly, the ending is hugely powerful in the moment – and should be praised for this. But, by going for the more obvious, and more overt, emotional finale, the film loses out on being much more unique and special. Though, this again reflects some of the safer or more conventional aspects of the film. In the background, we have some filmic ideas percolating: continuity of set design, and the aforementioned camerawork and soundtrack. These are all employed as cinematic techniques to evoke subjectivity but are somewhat relegated to the background – kept as unobtrusive. The film pushes its dialogue to the front, in a way that reminds you of its origin as a stage-play (and that the writer director being the creator of the play may mean that its hard for him to shrug off some of the overt theatricality). The dialogue is very good – natural yet smartly resonant – but dialogue is not the only way cinema can speak, but is all the film ultimately offers.
This is still a great film though. Though it could do more, what it does is truly impressive. To watch the film is to be actually disorientated and this pays off in brilliant ways. When you see the way people talk to Anthony from his actual point of view, equipped with his understanding – and then think on it again in light of the ending – it makes things so much more emotional and affecting. Being able to do this truly is impressive and watching The Father is such a worthwhile experience. Of course, this is helped by performances. Really, it is just Hopkins’ film, the ultimate two-dimensionality of the other characters is a purposeful choice that heightens the central confusion. Yet, even though they are not able to be fully realised characters – as you are never supposed to quite understand them – the other actors put in great turns that glean realism and resonance out of facilitating roles. Hopkins, however, is just sublime. The film asks so much of him, often in very quick succession. He has to be charming, infuriating, bullying and completely vulnerable. At points, he almost pulls this off all at once. It is never an overly showy performance, though it does feel technical and actorly, and it does have real humanity and nuance in it. If there is a critique, it is that the direction of the performances pushes them into theatre style acting at points, where things are a tiny bit heightened – as they would need to be for the stage – and once again dialogue trumps all else. Again, this may just be a relic of the director’s background – him being used to playing it a certain way that doesn’t always sing on screen.
So, while the film is always an inch away from brilliance, it is still a powerful and intelligently constructed work. Yes, it wants you to know how smart it is, but that does still mean it is very smart. The intricacy of the narrative makes for a large number of resonant moments and, at its best, this feels almost like a psychological thriller in the way it keeps your attention and wrongfoots you. It is also a work of genuine empathy that goes beyond most dramas that deal with this subject. Anthony is not a victim to be pitied here, he is a person that we grow to understand and who we feel alongside.