Old age is a present which, if we are patient enough, comes to all of us. As it is a present, we can never tell what is wrapped up inside it. The body refuses orders and the mind wears thin in various inventive fashion, from one person to another. All that we know and have experienced fall under questioning. I have encountered two materials which both deal with the uncertainties of memory in old age, and both were unsettling and sad. The first is a Khaled Hosseini novel, “And the Mountains Echoed”, which opens and closes with a pair of siblings losing and finding each other. However, when they meet after so many years of trials, one of them already has Alzheimer’s and can no longer recognize the other. Florian Zeller’s 2012 play, “La Pere”, now adapted for screen and directed by him as The Father, is the second, and it takes the lead as a haunting take on old age and the frailties of memory that come with it.
The Father is about Anthony, an aging man stricken with dementia, whose debilitating memory loss plagues his relationship with his daughter, Anne (Olivia Colman), and in turn, her own relationships. Anthony, played by Anthony Hopkins, must make meaning of, and reconcile with his sporadically changing realities. The peculiarity of The Father is that the movie is from the perspective of an old man losing his grip on memory, and this is what makes the movie so haunting. We see Anthony misplace names, faces, objects, occurrences, and in all of these losses, the constant, as the saying, “old habits die hard,” are Anthony’s responses.
At first, Anthony faces his crumbling perceptions bravely. He is confident in his miscalculations. His articulacy and ingenious ripostes show that Anthony has an intelligent mind—this is what makes the mind so confused and disbelieving of its own crumbling. To Anthony, he is defending his world and memories against intruders. Soon, his responses become predictable; the theft of his flat, the theft of his watch, Paris, and the theft of his daughter. The sadness of this movie is in Anthony’s eventual docility to dementia. On some days, the illness is worse than on other days. This fluctuating state of mind, this illusive conquers he appears to have are the elements that magnify the breakage and helplessness that culminate throughout the movie down to the final scene. All Anthony knew, fragmented as they were, return to haunt him.
The success of this movie rested on the storytelling as much as it did on Anthony Hopkins’ feeble shoulders. An impeccable actor on his good days, Anthony Hopkins raised the stakes a little higher for this performance. The quality of great acting has always rested in how an actor goes beyond the depiction of character and the delivery of lines. The understanding of character nuance in relation to space and other characters, as is so pivotal to this character’s success, was undeniable for Hopkins here. Days after he had won the Oscar for the role, he appeared in a clip on YouTube thankful for the award, and commiserating Chadwick Boseman’s death, and the slouch in his gait that he had in the movie was gone, the hesitation in his speech had disappeared. As the character, an unscripted pat on Anne’s shoulder here, a dramatic twirl of his own wrist to feel his wristwatch, a caress of Anne’s face, and the shock on his face every time his memory failed him, a look that became familiar as the movie progressed. Anthony Hopkins has had excellent performances in older movies and it would be demeaning to name this performance his apotheosis, but it comes close. This is a testament to how great an actor Anthony Hopkins is.
The great thespian is in his old age, and roles like this, unlike his rather statutory role as Odin in Thor, remind us that he is just shy of ninety (90). While we don’t want to think of it, the thought surfaces occasionally. But for now, we celebrate his brilliant performances in movies such as The Father. The Father itself leaves me feeling as I did after the final pages of Khaled Hosseini’s novel, “And the Mountains Echoed”. A great emptiness came upon me for days that left me unable to read anything new, and I feared and saddened for all the old people I knew. But in truth, I only feared for myself and old age.
- Olivia Coleman’s performance was equally exceptional. But when you play opposite Anthony Hopkins, it is easy for that to be overlooked.
The Father is currently available on Video on Demand.