Heartbreaking and uncompromisingly poignant THE FATHER, Sir Anthony Hopkins gives one of his greatest performance onscreen portraying a father who is suffering from dementia

By Oliver Carnay

One of the films shown at the AFI FEST 2020 presented by Audi (October 14 – 22) was THE FATHER, a story of an 80 year-old, mischievous, defiant old man who refuses all assistance from his daughter (played by Olivia Colman) as he is coping with dementia. The film also stars Rufus Sewell, Olivia Williams, Imogen Poots and Mark Gatiss.

Director FLORIAN ZELLER adapted the film from “La Pere,” the play he wrote about eight years ago (in 2012). The play was very personal to him because he was directly concern about the issue of dementia. He really wanted Sir Anthony Hopkins specifically for the part so he sent the script to Hopkins in 2017 and waited for a reply. In the meantime, he did not pursue production with any other actors in the lead role. He said if Hopkins had not agreed to the film, then it likely would have been made in French instead. He brought Christopher Hampton to adapt the play to film and to translate it into English. Hampton, like Zeller, is a playwright himself, but has since also become known as a screenwriter on films such as ATONEMENT, THE QUIET AMERICAN, and DANGEROUS LIAISONS. “I was raised by my grandmother. I was 15 when I became aware of it. What do you do when the people you love started to suffer from dementia? When it was staged, the response of the audience was always the same and very powerful. To me, cinema is about sharing emotions and I needed to transfer this into the big screen,” Zeller said.

The character was so complex and ANTHONY HOPKINS committed to the part so much it is so moving and so profoundly. What specific drew him to the project? “My agent sent me the script and it was one of those that grabbed you. It was brilliantly written and so I met with Florian and Christopher Hampton (writer) and I couldn’t believe my luck to have this role given to me. This was two years ago because I was doing “The Two Popes” in Rome with Jonathan Price, and I was hoping they could wait for me because I really would like to do this. And, I couldn’t believe they are willing to wait for me, and then Olivia came along. I have been grateful enough to have been given a chance to work with top notch actors. I’m very fortunate.”

Anthony played this character role with such range showing a unique blend of vulnerability and emotions. He was cantankerous, charming but was there any particular inspiration that he drew on to play or does he know anybody close to him who has dementia? “Both my parents died having been spared dementia. My mother was 89 .. I am 82 now. As an actor, I’ve been doing this for a long time, so I don’t need to get into it. You just prepare, learn your lines and show up. I make it easier for myself to be myself. I make it simple it doesn’t need to be agony. Just be relaxed. Prepare yourself and just let it go. Olivia agrees, she said, “I feel exactly the same way. Every part that I have played, we’re all so multi-faceted, we can be grumpy, nice, angry, we just find a bit of us and use it.”

OLIVIA COLMAN, as well, powerfully convey dedication vulnerability, showed love her sadness and frustration with such complex character playing the daughter. She responded on how she got the script and what drew her to accept the role. “The script. It was always the script and I was drawn about the script of this, and this one I really wanted to do it. I loved that idea what he [Anthony] said — “I hope they wait for me [laughed]!”. So I was very happy he was on board and I just went ‘Yes, please!’. It’s so beautiful I don’t need to do anything and just watching Tony, in a room where you see him we just really had a lovely time! We got on well, we were in good hands and Florian’s amazing. I’m sure you’ve watched Florian’s first film and it’s astonishing! He stirred that film for such command and such calmness.”

Olivia continued, “The narrative of the play worked the same way as the film and we worked with Christoper, the writer with the decision to keep it that way, which is basically to tell the story from the inside and allow the audience to experience a slice of dementia. We wanted the film to be not only a film, but if possible, a real experience. And it is about playing what is real and what is not real, to have some contradictions in the situations, and to never help the audience to find the exit of the maze. I wanted the audience to be in an active position and to question all the while what are they witnessing. Sometimes it’s frustrating because there’s anxiety but you try to figure it out, just like the main character is going through. And in a way, we are in his head the way we feel about this disorientation. I didn’t just want to film the play and what I had in mind is to turn this into cinematic and to use what the cinema can do. And also with the editing with Yorgos (Lamprinos) it was the same whatever the cinema can do to increase this feeling of disorientation as close as possible with all the emotions. When you have two genius actors like Anthony and Olivia, you want to be close to feel exactly what goes through them. It’s magical to witness these amazing way of embodying the characters. It’s something I will never forget!”

Sony Pictures Classics will release Florian Zeller’s THE FATHER in theaters in New York and Los Angeles on December 18, 2020 with a rollout in major markets on Christmas Day.


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