Thursday, March 11, 2021

Shattering movie; shattering performance

     Anthony Hopkins is now 83 years old.
   That might not be especially relevant in reviewing a new movie starring Hopkins, but in the case of The Father Hopkins's age  gave me pause.
    It's nearly impossible for me to write about The Father, a story about a once competent man being overtaken by dementia, without wondering how much of the role Hopkins had to internalize. 
   How could he play a character named Anthony who's losing his grip without wondering whether he might encounter a similar fate?
   This is not to say that the Anthony in the movie is the Anthony Hopkins of real life, only that I couldn't watch The Father without wondering what emotional toll Anthony, the character, might have taken on Anthony, the actor.
   Adapting his own play in collaboration with Christopher Hampton, writer/director Florian Zeller has made a movie of shattering power. How awful to lose one's self -- or even to worry about the prospect as age advances.
    But the questions don't stop there: If the self -- strident and full of itself -- can be so easily vanquished, what was it in the first place?
    Olivia Colman portrays Anthony's daughter Anne. We quickly learn that Anne has decided to move to Paris to be with a new lover. As a consequence, she won't be able to look after her London-based father.
    Strains of bitterness and guilt underly Anne's worries about her father, a man who constantly makes it clear that he favors her sister, a character we never meet. Anne may be desperate for one last chance at happiness. 
    But wait. Before long, Anne turns up in the person of another actress (Olivia Williams). The story continues as if nothing had happened. The feeling of disorientation jars. Is this real? Are we seeing the world through Anthony's addled consciousness? 
   Identities plant themselves in our minds and then evaporate. Rufus Sewell and Mark Gatiss appear as different versions of Anne's husband.
    Zeller constantly overturns our assumptions. Anthony seems entrenched in his comfortable London apartment. We accept his reality until Zeller makes us wonder whether the apartment is his at all. 
    Later a new caregiver (Imogen Poots) arrives; her presence gives Anthony an opportunity to be flirtatious, imperious, and funny as if he's thumbing through an old catalog to find the personality traits that once defined him. 
   Once you accustom yourself to Zeller's approach, the movie acquires increasing power and its impact grows until we finally realize that Anthony is losing himself, a horrible situation made worse by Anthony's ability occasionally to apprehend the magnitude of the loss. 
    What could be more unsettling -- for the movie's characters and for its audience? I hope Hopkins, who gives one of the best performances of his career, was able to leave this character behind more easily than I could.
    Take that as both a wish and the deepest of compliments.

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