Watching “The Father,” I felt both envy and empathy. “The Father” deals with universals that transcend gender and culture; it is one of those few plays that is improved by its transition to cinema. The journey of “The Father,” to the screen was guided by its playwright, Florian Zeller, in his directorial debut.
The French play (“Le Père”) won a Molière Award for Best Play in 2014; it premiered in 2012 in Paris. Frank Langella starred in the Broadway production (Translated by Christopher Hampton) and received a Best Performance by an Actor in a Leading Role Tony in 2016.
The play which I saw with Al Molina in the lead role at the Pasadena Playhouse is gut wrenching. The Pasadena Playhouse is a larger theater and while the impact is tremendous, some of its possible intimacy is lost in the expanse that separates the actors and the audience. Watching the film during COVID-19 on my own screen with its close-ups near life size makes the film seem more personal by literally bringing it home.
“The Father” deals with a man, Anthony (Anthony Hopkins), in his twilight years. He has been widowed so long, he doesn’t mention his wife. He does mention his daughter, the one he favored over Anne (Olivia Colman). Olivia has a man, who she may be moving to Paris to be with or she may be married to Paul (Rufus Sewell). He seems to wander through parallel universes; the hallways are the same but slightly different. The rooms are the same, but not. A painting is missing. His watch is missing. But mostly, Anthony’s memories are missing.
Everyone’s reaction to this film will be deeply personal. If you’re feeling your mortality, you’ll be thinking of yourself. If you have parents who’ve grown frail and forgetful, who have problems communicating for whatever reason, you’ll be thinking of them and the heavy burden of their care. No matter what advice you get from doctors and healthcare professionals, the decision to place someone in a care facility isn’t easy. It will likely fracture one’s family. It did mine as my father was disabled by a terminal illness decades ago. So I empathize, but I also envy those whose fathers lived to be old as the 82-year-old Anthony Hopkins.
This isn’t the first time Zeller’s play has been made into a movie. In 2015, it was a French film, “Floride.” Zeller didn’t write that script. Both he and the translator of the Broadway production, Hampton, are credited with the screenplay. During an AFI virtual panel discussion, Zeller noted that he had been raised by his grandmother and when he was 15, she began to suffer from dementia. He had been surprised by the audience reactions, yet “everyone will have to deal with this fear.” Despite having extra time due to delays, Zeller didn’t feel the need to rehearse that much, just a little bit before the actual shoot because he wanted “to keep the energy of discovering the situations.”
The uncertainty between Hopkins and Colman illuminates this tragedy, but Zeller has two Oscar-winning leads whose instincts are spot on. We’ve seen them both as affable characters and slightly sinister people of power. We can’t be quite sure which Hopkins’ Anthony was in his prime because we see that he could be both charming and a tyrant. Colman’s dutiful daughter pauses often and seems to be remembering so much more, of a past that was both good and bad, filled with smiles and tears, but now there can only be tears.
“The Father” premiered at the Sundance Film Festival on 27 January 2020. It was screened at the Toronto International Film Festival in September of this year. Currently, “The Father” is scheduled to be released in the US on 18 December and in the UK on 8 January 2021. Zeller said, “The cinema is a lot about sharing emotions,” and this film shares unsettling emotional moments and questions that we all will face. In the right mood, it is well worth watching.