In its own way, Florian Zeller's "The Father" is as immersive as a 3D action movie like "Avatar" or a new installment of "The Fast and the Furious." While it never leaves a London neighborhood and takes place primarily in an upper middle-class apartment, it is a formidable accomplishment.
Sir Anthony Hopkins plays the title character Anthony. From his confident bearing, you'd never guess that Anthony had any sort of maladies, much less that he was struggling with dementia. His home is well furnished, and he paces around it energetically. He's like a lion, lording over his domain. From his assured bearing and his comfortable, elegant surroundings, it's hard to understand why his daughter Anne (Olivia Colman) rushes into his home in a state of agitation.
Watching Colman's facial expressions, we glean that Anthony is in an untenable situation. He's berated his caregiver to the point where she has quit (the woman never appears on screen). Anne doesn't have to say much, but as her eyes drop, we can tell that Anthony has lost his grip on what's happening around him. When he brings up Anne's sister, Colman's face instantly registers that something more than sibling rivalry is happening.
Zeller doesn't have to spell out Anthony's decline because we get to live it with him. In a taut 97 minutes, we experience how fragile his sense of reality is.
The flat turns into a Satanic funhouse where time and location become hopelessly murky. In adapting his French play with Christopher Hampton (who wrote both the play "Les Liaisons Dangereuses" and the screenplay for "Dangerous Liaisons," the film it became), Zeller uses little optical or digital trickery, but rooms in one building lead to corridors in another. The world seems real and grounded, but it's impossible to navigate. Essentially, Anthony is in an escape room without an exit.
In addition, the others in the room don't have fixed identities. There are two men (Mark Gatiss from "Sherlock," and Rufus Sewell "Dark City") in Anne's life, and each seems to change personalities with jarring speed. The next caregiver (Imogen Poots) is always on the verge of starting her job, but it's hard to tell if she accepted the position. Likewise, she changes places with another woman (Olivia Williams), who may not be in the same building.
As a result, the claustrophobic quality that a lot of filmed adaptations of plays have is an undeniable asset here. We feel both Anthony's gradual disorientation and Anne's struggle to take care of a father who is beyond help. Hopkins has a gift for conveying a lot of information without having to bellow or gesticulate. In an interview I conducted with director Scott Hicks about 20 years ago, he said of Hopkins, "He can stand there for all intents and purposes doing nothing, but you're riveted by him." Hopkins projects a charm that comes in handy as Anthony behaves cruelly toward the people trying to take care of him.
Similarly, Colman conveys a weariness that never quite reaches despair. She never blurts out Anne's frustration because we can already see it. With all the closeups, their scenes would fall apart if the two decided to wail toward the balconies. There are outbursts, but these two Oscar-winners know how to make them seem suitably organic.
Watching someone else struggling with a failing memory is a heartbreaking experience, but Hopkins and company make that toil gripping and empathetic. Anthony may not be able to remember what has happened to him, but we will.
89 Cast: Anthony Hopkins, Olivia Colman, Rufus Sewell, Imogen Poots, Mark Gatiss, Olivia Williams, Ayesha Dharker, Scott Mullins, Roman Zeller
Director: Florian Zeller
Rating: PG-13, for some strong language, and thematic material
Running time: 1 hour, 37 minutes