The Father
The Father Credit: Sony Picture Classics

Based on his groundbreaking hit play, playwright Florian Zeller writes and directs the big-screen adaptation of The Father, which made its world premiere at the Sundance Film Festival on January 27, 2020 and after a year of pandemic-induced rescheduling is finally available for everyone to watch via VOD. Starring Academy Award-winners Anthony Hopkins and Olivia Colman, it is the story of a man suffering the effects of dementia and his daughter trying to manage the changes.

Brilliantly written and acted, Hopkins taps an honesty and vulnerability that, when paired with Zeller’s ingenious writing, gives audiences an authentic experience of losing one’s faculties. Struggling with the ambivalence of anger and sadness, Colman’s outstanding performance generates deep empathy, which, peppered by Hopkins’s combination of humor, frustration, and despondency, make for a very real and tragic look at growing old.

Writing this story was a personal matter for Zeller. “My grandmother who raised me,” he told me in an interview the day of the premiere, “she started to suffer from dementia when I was 15.” It was not his plan to write his story, but to reflect a more universal theme. “Everyone will have to deal with this dilemma, which is: what will I do with the people I love when they start losing their bearings?”

Upon meeting Zeller, I immediately told him about my own father’s struggle with dementia. He shared that in the dozens of countries where the play has been staged, “everyone was coming up to me and telling their own story,” expressing a need to share. This is the power of theater and films, he noted, “to allow people to talk and to share. When you are going through difficult moments the tendency is to keep with your own pain,” but we are not alone.

The point of art is to feel as though we are part of something bigger than ourselves, “and that is humanity. Pain remains pain, but we realize we are brothers and sisters in pain and it is meaningful to share that trial.” Despite all the cultural differences, wherever the play was staged, the emotional response was similar. “It was my hope when I wrote the play to share this cathartic experience,” he said, and these shared responses told him something was at stake, inspiring him to make the film.

Part of the brilliance of the film, like the play, is how the audience is engaged and challenged to understand what is going on along with the main character from within rather than without. “I really wanted to keep the narrative of the play, which was to try to put the audience in a very active position to be part of the narrative . . . which is to try to experience a slice of dementia.” The audience is placed “in a confused world as if you are the one suffering from dementia . . . it was a very exciting cinematic challenge.”

Working with Hopkins, Zeller recalled, was “the most intense and joyful experience of my life.” Zeller described him as “gentle and clever, in a good way, and so intelligent and so generous.” They spoke and corresponded for a year, sharing references and desires for the film, so when production started they built a strong relationship, “very sentimental . . . we were aware that we were trying to do the same film.”

Hopkins’s performance is a master class in commitment. On set, he had to face his own mortality in an honest way, and “he had to explore something else, and become like a child crying for help.” These scenes are heart-wrenching. This was an intense process for Hopkins and the cast, and at one point his performance brought them all to tears. “He is not a method actor . . . he is just giving himself.”

In the play, the set slowly starts to disappear, a tactic that would not work as well on film. “We had to adapt this idea,” Zeller said, “into something more cinematic and less abstract. The apartment becomes one of the main characters of the story . . . as part of the audience you are in a world that’s moving and reality is not certain.” As this plays out, the audience’s understanding and compassion build, along with Colman’s character of Anne, the daughter.

“It was also the daughter’s story,” Zeller said. “I needed an actress who would allow you to feel empathy.” Colman is perfect for the role. “She’s so humble, generous and full of humanity.” The film is often like a thriller, and Colman elicits the anger, fear, and anxiety of a loved one trying to figure out what is going on.   v