Running time: 97 minutes. Rated PG-13 (strong language, and thematic material). In select theaters.
In a year full of titanic male performances (Chadwick Boseman, Delroy Lindo, Riz Ahmed), Anthony Hopkins ranks high for his seismic turn in “The Father.”
The 83-year-old legend plays a man suffering from dementia, during the terrible moment when he’s starting to lose his grip on reality.
Stories about the aging mind have grown in popularity as the population has been leading longer lives, and now too many of us can connect to this traumatic experience. But what French director Florian Zeller attempts to do here is show the hardship from the patient’s view, rather than the usual vantage of saddened loved ones.
How do you express the thoughts of an unraveling brain? Weirdly.
The unusual drama begins with Anthony (Hopkins) getting a visit from his daughter Anne (Olivia Colman, beautifully tormented). She admits to him that she plans on moving from London to Paris to live with a new boyfriend, and her dad is distressed.
Anne then walks into the kitchen and — whoosh — an entirely different woman (Olivia Williams) returns to the room claiming to be her. She has no French beau, but a British husband of 10 years (Mark Gatiss), and it turns out this apartment isn’t Anthony’s — it’s theirs. The old man is furious and distraught, assuming there’s been a break-in, but calms himself down when they insist they are his relatives.
But wait! A moment later, Anne 1.0 is back in the flat with yet another dude, Paul (Rufus Sewell). Is this an upscale brothel?
Keeping logical track of all the comings and goings is like trying to focus on a single bird in a flock. The details, names and faces blur a little more every time a character rounds a corner, just as they would for the ailing Anthony. With its narrative boldness, however, “The Father” never stirs or fully satiates.
If the whole thing all sounds rather theatrical, that’s because “The Father” started out as a play. Frank Langella won a 2016 Tony Award for playing the title character on Broadway.
The changing-faces technique, despite its lack of realism, fits more comfortably on-screen than onstage. For one, it’s not a plot-driven story, since the sequence of events is purposefully jumbled and unclear — it’s one of pure emotion. “The Father” is told through Anthony’s volatile feelings, and close-ups allow Hopkins to play wildly with them.
The actor’s extraordinary career has been marked by his ability to be grand and terrifying without being physically imposing. He so easily switches from a weak charmer to a warrior. Flesh-eating serial killer to retired pope. This time, he channels both of those extremes into one rich part.
“The Father” is some of the actor’s finest work since “The Silence of the Lambs.” Enjoy it with some fava beans and a nice Chianti.