The 50 best films of 2020 in the US: No 5 – The Father

Anthony Hopkins in The Father
Anthony Hopkins in The Father. Photograph: Landmark Media/Alamy Stock Photo
Anthony Hopkins in The Father. Photograph: Landmark Media/Alamy Stock Photo

Anthony Hopkins gives the performance of his career as a man losing his grip on reality in a devastating and ingeniously realised drama about dementia

Benjamin Lee

Last modified on Mon 14 Dec 2020 10.38 EST

It’s rare to encounter a film like The Father, a sterling, Oscar-worthy chamber piece of inarguably high quality but one that I would hesitate before instantly, enthusiastically recommending to most. It’s exquisitely acted and impressively, at times ingeniously, directed, and yet it deserves to be accompanied by a severe warning, one that will prove indispensable to certain viewers who’ll not just find it difficult to watch but close to impossible.

It’s a drama about dementia that plays more like a horror, lit by a slowburn terror that something awful is happening to its elderly protagonist Anthony, played by Anthony Hopkins. He’s convinced that it’s some sort of trick, a pack of unending lies being told by his daughter Anne, played by Olivia Colman, whose stubborn inconsistency starts to read as some form of gaslighting. Rather than placing us with a beleaguered family member such as Anne as many films about this subject often do, writer-director Zeller, adapting his acclaimed play, forces us into Anthony’s fractured, unnerving, exhausting world where not only details shift but faces and places do, all within the blink of an eye. Sometimes his daughter is someone else, played by Olivia Williams, sometimes she’s married, sometimes she’s not, sometimes he’s in his flat, sometimes he’s in hers. What could have been another worthy disease-of-the-week movie is transformed into something far more terrifying and in turn, far more effective.

It’s an unspeakably uncomfortable subject for those who know what it feels like to watch someone slowly disappear and it’s a film that will rightfully be avoided as a result. I can’t say that it provides much in the way of solace but it does humanise a character who we’re used to seeing patronised from a distance, with precious little depth. Aging on screen is still handled with kid gloves and with broad strokes, if handled at all, whether that be a result of our collective obsession with youth or a fear of truly confronting what comes next. But in Zeller’s tough-minded yet empathetic film, he refuses to shy away from the grit as well as the humanity, never losing sight of just how Anthony is feeling and how terrifying this grind of confusion must be. The most heartbreaking moments are often when he pretends to understand what he’s being confronted with rather than angrily reacting, a sad acceptance of a life of whiplash unpredictability.

We’re in his flat for the most part but Zeller avoids the obvious accusation of staginess by constantly rearranging what we see in front of us, making us as confused as Anthony, dragging us deeper into the fog along with him. Our emotional investment is also secured by a sensational performance by Hopkins, registering every flicker of confusion and anger and upset in ways that slowly shatter because we not only see an elderly relative but we also see ourselves and what might happen when our brains start to betray us too. It’s the best he’s ever been, after a period of lesser challenges, a detailed and devastating turn that reminds us of the sheer, hard-to-rival power he possesses as an actor.

The Father is a hard film to endure but then so it should be.