26th Feb, 2021

The New Yorker by Anthony Lane

Florian Zeller’s adaptation of his play about old age shows Hopkins at the frightening summit of his powers.

February 26, 2021

Anthony Hopkins stars in Florian Zeller’s adaptation of his own play.Illustration by Keith Negley
Anthony Hopkins stars in Florian Zeller’s adaptation of his own play.Illustration by Keith Negley

The hero of “The Father” is an old man named Anthony. He is played by Anthony Hopkins, and the two of them, fictional and real, share a date of birth—the final day of 1937. When we first meet Anthony, he is wearing headphones and listening to music: a high and stammering plea, sung by a countertenor. It comes from Purcell’s “King Arthur,” and the lyrics, by John Dryden, tell a chilling tale: “What power art thou, who from below / Hast made me rise, unwillingly, and slow, / From beds of everlasting snow?” There is no better guide to the plight of Anthony, upon whom the season of dementia has descended. He is all iced up.

The film is directed by Florian Zeller. It comes from his play of the same name, which he has adapted for the screen, in consort with Christopher Hampton. Most of the action unfolds in a London apartment, which retains the air of a stage set; a fine light slants in from one side, as though we were trapped in a perpetual late afternoon. Occasionally, the characters venture into the external world, but it feels like a foreign country. Anthony stares out of the window and spies a kid, in the street, tossing and kicking a plastic bag. Such is the lenient envy with which age regards the idleness of youth.

Anthony had a caregiver, who has recently quit, claiming that he maltreated her. His daughter, Anne (Olivia Colman), who comes to see him, is galled by the situation, but Anthony is mulish and unmoved. “I don’t need anyone,” he says. It’s not long, however, before this proud self-reliance gives way to a wheedling cry. When Anne announces that she may be moving to Paris, he replies, “You’re abandoning me. What’s going to become of me?” Shyly, he rests his hand against the side of his face—a Hopkins trademark, visible in “The Remains of the Day” (1993), and suggesting a need to shield himself from the scrutinizing glare of other people.

At this stage, we are braced for a harsh and realistic portrait of a failing mind, and of the loved ones who get hurt along the way. To an extent, “The Father” fulfills that brief. But something else emerges here: a mystery, all the more disconcerting for being so matter-of-fact. Anthony walks into an adjoining room, finds a man sitting there, and inquires, “Who are you?” The man explains that he is Paul (Mark Gatiss), Anne’s partner, and that he, too, lives in the apartment. When we next see Paul, however, he is played by Rufus Sewell instead of Gatiss, and is far more abrasive than the earlier incarnation. As for Anne, she is played not only by Colman but also by Olivia Williams—who, like Gatiss, will later show up in another role. What’s going on?

Zeller is not the first director to jumble his dramatis personae, and to maintain a cool composure in the process. When Luis Buñuel was at an impasse in the creation of “That Obscure Object of Desire” (1977), he hit upon the idea—“after two dry Martinis,” as he said—of having a pair of alternating actresses play the heroine. The delectable joke was that, to the roué of riper years who yearned for her (and who appeared not to notice her metamorphoses), she thus became twice as unattainable, and doubled her mockery of his lust. The trick is repeated in “The Father,” but for sadder reasons; Anthony is driven by confusion rather than passion, and, if the folks around him keep swapping places, that is because his capacity for human recognition has shrunk. In short, we view the world through his bewildered eyes. What looks like his apartment is, in fact, the inside of his head.

A while ago, I saw “The Father” onstage, with a different cast. By the following morning, I had forgotten all about it. Why, then, should the film make so potent an impression? Partly because of the deeper spatial perspectives that moviegoing affords, and the furtiveness that they encourage; unlike a theatre audience, we can gaze down the long hallway in Anthony’s apartment, as he slips through a door at the end of it and peers at us darkly through the crack. Let’s be honest: the mainspring of “The Father,” onscreen, is the presence of Hopkins—an actor at the frightening summit of his powers, portraying a man brought pitifully low. The irony is too rare to resist.

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One thing that distinguishes actors of the loftiest rank is the fascination that they breed in us as they carry out quite ordinary deeds. A famous example is that of James Stewart, in “Mr. Smith Goes to Washington” (1939), toying with the brim of his hat to indicate social awkwardness, and the sight of Hopkins, in “The Father,” pottering about the kitchen, filling the kettle and unpacking groceries, casts a comparable spell. We could be watching a priest preparing for Mass. This air of deliberation grows more intent with the introduction of Laura (Imogen Poots), a friendly young woman who is bravely applying to be Anthony’s next caregiver. Greeting her, with a silk handkerchief rakishly tucked into the breast pocket of his robe, he is charm personified—flirting with her, flashing his grin, and intimating that he used to be a dancer by profession. (Not true. He was an engineer.) He paces round and round the living room, tracked by the camera, and then unsheathes his rage:

“All I want is for everyone to fuck off. Having said that, it’s been a great pleasure. Au revoir. Toodle-oo.”

It’s an astonishing sequence, toughened by its mixture of the courtly and the profane, and by the force with which Hopkins hammers out his lines, striking the consonants until they spark. (Elsewhere, he even stretches the word “Anne” into a disyllable.) We cut away to Anne, who hears his tirade in tears. Why is it that this cramped family saga should have a reach and a clutch that were denied to other studies of dementia, like “Away from Her” (2006) and “Still Alice” (2015)? It is, I would argue, because of the ghost of “King Lear.”

Hopkins played Lear at the National Theatre, in 1986, and, in 2018, he returned to the part for a television production, directed by Richard Eyre. That performance was oddly muffled in its impact; the rage of the King felt predetermined, as though he were armed for conflict in advance, whereas Anthony’s ire, in the new film, bursts out of nowhere, like thunder. To be sent to a nursing home—his underlying terror—would be like being evicted, in foul weather, onto a blasted heath. “I’m losing all my things, everyone’s just helping themselves. If this goes on much longer I’ll be stark naked,” he says, with half a laugh, clinging madly to his apartment much as Lear does to his retinue of knights. (Anne, exasperated and fond, is a Cordelia who gets raved at like a Goneril.) Despite the strong ensemble of supporting players, “The Father” is a work of dreadful loneliness. Hopkins rules the screen, swaying between grandeur and finicky fuss, and in Anthony’s decline we see a portent. “Who, exactly, am I?” he asks. And how many lives, like his, must end in a one-man show?

For an alternative approach to the treatment of the elderly, lay aside “The Father” and try “I Care a Lot,” which is fast, hard, bright, and about as gentle as a mouthful of sour candy. The movie stars Rosamund Pike as Marla Grayson, who is a guardian by trade. This means that she takes over the affairs, personal and financial, of senior citizens who are no longer capable of handling their own lives. It sounds like a noble calling, and the authorities tend to trust her. What they don’t know is that a local doctor supplies her with easy prey—“real high-maintenance assholes,” we learn, who can be committed to a care facility, under a court order, while Marla strips their assets bare. As she says to her latest victim, Jennifer Peterson (Dianne Wiest), “You’re just another old lady, in a care home, with dementia, with incontinence, with arthritis, and with no one. Except me.”

Written and directed by J. Blakeson, the film is in love with its heartless heroine, loath to let her out of the camera’s sight. We are invited to bask in her depravity, and to side with her when things go wrong—when Jennifer, far from being meek and defenseless, turns out to have (a) unregistered diamonds in a safe-deposit box and (b) unsavory criminal connections, in the shape of Roman Lunyov (Peter Dinklage). Marla squares off against Roman, whose unfathomable evil is signalled by the menacing fashion in which he eats an éclair.

The trouble with “I Care a Lot” is not how cynical it seems but how pleased it is with that cynicism, forever straining to top its own tastelessness. (No wonder it’s so unwilling to let go; the last film with this many endings was the final part of “The Lord of the Rings,” in 2003.) “To make it in this country you need to be brave and stupid and ruthless and focussed,” Marla declares, and guardianship is revealed to be just another wrench in the toolbox of capitalism. Wiest, who gives the least calculated and the most beguiling performance, fades from the scene, and, in essence, the movie does a Marla: rather than paying genuine heed to the aged, it uses them, wheels them away, and parks them in a corner of the plot. The old story. ♦