The Father (Review): A Powerful and Empathetic Portrait of Mental Illness

Anthony Hopkins won Best Actor at the Oscars for this, so it’s gotta be good right? Never assume awards mean anything. Read on to uncover my thoughts on The Father.

Did you click through? If so, I admit I was messing around with that intro. This movie is amazing! Although I wasn’t lying about movie awards being a bad indicator of a film’s quality. The amount of good movies I’ve seen be ignored for completely arbitrary reasons is staggering; and the supposedly “good” films are often pretentious slogs… Anyway– you didn’t come to hear me rant about Hollywood (I think?).

The Father stars the always amazing Anthony Hopkins as Anthony: an elderly man, suffering from Dementia. Anthony’s daughter (Olivia Coleman) must put her life on hold to care for her ailing father. And so begins the story!

First off, I must acknowledge what a brilliant concept this film explores. Most movie-goers anticipating an emotional movie about dementia probably expect most of the plot to concern the illness’ effects on a character’s family. And it does. But the entire story takes place from Anthony’s perspective. In so doing, The Father evolves into more than a story; it becomes an experience.

And that experience is a confusing, sometimes frustrating one to witness. You’d think that such descriptors imply The Father is a dull and infuriating movie to sit through, yet it somehow works– better than it ought to. First let me explain the sorts of “confusing events” I’m talking about. Then I can explain why I think they work.

The Father‘s plot is simple on paper—an exploration of Dementia, featuring only a handful of actors in one location– but makes progressively less sense as the movie goes (except when it makes more sense… bear with me). Though there’s approximately six characters, Anthony’s worsening memory warps reality in a way which confuses faces with personalities. Actors sometimes come into a scene and the audience, like Anthony, assumes who they are. But then they profess to be someone completely different!

Then there’s the setting. Though the film spends nearly an hour and a half in one little apartment, I could hardly make sense of said apartment’s geography. Sometimes it seems as if rooms disappear, or hallways lead somewhere different than a previous scene. The details of the place almost certainly changed in ways I didn’t even notice… Shelves changed colour and style, props (like the piano) disappeared or sometimes appeared where they never sat before. I barely even noticed this at first but I clued in to the changes as the movie progressed.

So how does any of this confusion make for a compelling story? Because we’re experiencing what the main character feels as they feel it! Most films have trouble communicating character emotions. They’re content to have long rambling monologues where people tell you how they feel. That’s lazy film-making. Anthony doesn’t need to talk about his feelings all the time because we see how his mind works in a visual way.

We spend the whole movie trying to piece everything together along with Anthony. Who’s who? And what’s going on?

Anthony in contemplation

Empathy is at the core of this tale. The better we understand what a person is going through, no matter who they may be, the more compassionate we may be to them. I don’t know what it’s like to have Dementia and I should hope I never will. But seeing a movie like this helps me to understand what it’s like, and to potentially have more patience for anyone I meet suffering from the disorder. It also demonstrates some red flags of a sufferer’s behaviour so that we may learn from them. Maybe something will click when you watch it and you’ll think “Oh, wow! I have a relative who acts like this. I should look into getting them some help.” Art in this vein helps us better respond to reality.

Case in point: some aspects of the plot resonated with me harder than I expected. From scene one– Anthony’s behaviour reminded me of a close relative. That person has never been diagnosed with Alzheimer’s, but some of the dialogue and situations in The Father matched conversations my family members have had with them many times before. I only watched the film a few days ago, but I’ve begun to re-contextualize this relative’s behaviours which I’d always taken at face value until now.

“OK”, you might be thinking. “Empathy sounds good and all. But why would I want to be confused for 2 hours just to experience that?” Well, it’s your choice. I want to make something clear though: a major saving grace to those who may be frustrated with the movie is that the majority of people watching don’t also have dementia (or so I’d hope). Having all our mental faculties affords us audience members with some clarity on the situation which Anthony does not possess.

If we pay attention, we can figure out the sequence of events and take a guess at what’s actually happening. This is what I meant earlier when I implied the movie might make more sense as it makes less sense. For example: I had my own suspicions about the plot based on my basic knowledge of human memory processes. I’m not gonna share those suspicions in detail (see, Non-spoiler review) but you might figure out what I’m talking about if you question the movie’s logic once things start getting strange.

In case I’ve worried you about how nonsensical the story might seem: the plot DOES make some sense in the end. It’s not all spelled out but you’ll understand well enough. I’d argue this is “confusing done right” unlike, let’s say, Tenet (where you have to devote way too much time online to comprehend the bare minimum of what’s going on). Either way– I need to give this one a re-watch. There’s probably tonnes of details I missed the first time around

Maybe by now you’re thinking: “It sounds good but way too depressing…” Well, it is depressing. I’m not gonna lie. But there’s a decent amount of levity too. Anthony is a largely charming and funny man, in spite of his problems. He loves to joke around. But of course this serves to make the movie sadder. In my experience, people connect to others easier through positive emotions. So, assuming we grow to like Anthony, it becomes all the worse when we see him deteriorate. That’s just good storytelling, yet it also keeps the movie from being a black hole of emotionally crushing tragedy.

For all its great performances, and production design and direction, The Father was made in the edit. The way this movie is pieced together is nothing short of remarkable. None of the effects I’ve described thus far would have any impact on my mind had they not been edited together so masterfully. There’s one particular scene where the family has dinner which blew my mind! The Father’s editing creates a world which is simultaneously grounded in our reality yet almost dreamlike in presentation.

Some final thoughts: I liked this movie’s small and intimate scale, some of the plot’s mysteries left me pondering long after I left the theatre (in a good way), all the actors were excellent, and every element of film production works well in tandem to create this final product.

Boasting an Oscar-winning performance by Anthony Hopkins, The Father accomplishes what all good art strives for: to make its audience feel something and offer a unique perspective. This is film-making at its most empathetic. It’s a sincere attempt to replicate a world-view many of us have either not experienced or cannot easily explain once we have.

A fresh and thought-provoking take on Dementia in film– The Father is a Must See.

What’s a movie/ show/ book (or anything else) which changed how you saw something about the world? What did you think of The Father? Please share your thoughts in the comments (no spoilers please). If you have any ideas for future articles, or any questions, let me know. Also be sure to Like this article on Facebook and share if you enjoyed!

Till next time,

Joe Morin

REVIEW METRIC: Don’t bother; If you’re bored; Worth a watch; Pretty darn good; Must see; Watch it A.S.A.P.

By Joseph Morin

Joe's passion for film and entertainment began at 7 years old when his younger brother demanded to watch Duel of the Fates every day for weeks (on DVD). Joe admired the sequence so much, he decided to dedicate his life to film-making and storytelling. He has a degree in Cinema and Media Studies from York University. Joe loves DC superheroes (especially Superman), the first six Star Wars movies, and arguing about media with anyone who will listen.

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