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Nominated For Six Oscars, 'The Father' Tackles Alzheimer's In A Different Way

Sean Gleason
Sony Pictures Classics

Anthony (Anthony Hopkins) doesn’t know why his daughter Anne (Olivia Colman) has come to visit. He’s irritated, and when the talk turns to how he drove a woman away from the apartment, he’s angry. He didn’t like her, and he didn’t know why she was in his home anyway. It’s clear that Anthony is losing his memory.

It doesn’t connect at first that this place is not the first apartment. So, you’re a bit confused and unsettled, just like Anthony.

Most movies about memory loss — they are now many — are melodramas. Your heart goes out to the person suffering, and to their families. The movie descends into ever deeper grief and sadness and drives you to yearn for cure and relief. But Florian Zeller’s The Father is not melodrama. It’s sometimes funny, sometimes annoying — Anthony can be a real irritation. And the movie isn’t accommodating. The second apartment looks enough like the first that you do something like a nervous double-take, again like Anthony.

Situations and characters shift without warning. Anne tells her father that she’s leaving London to live in Paris with her boyfriend. At other moments she’s married. And that’s the point — the film forces the audience to share Anthony’s confusion.

It’s a pleasure — if that’s the right word — to avoid the dreary decline of many other Alzheimer’s films, the slow descents and unrelenting sadness. Anthony’s mind jumps around in time, from not-so-bad, too much worse, to not-so-bad again. The movie gives you little chance to feel the misery because you’re busy trying to get oriented. The movie’s crusty and sometimes funny, and all of this keeps you off balance.

Movies about diseases are tricky. Filmmakers have to be respectful, but they can bog down in their respect and lose sight of the character of their characters, and all they wind up with is mush. It may be cynical to say, but movies about diseases get lazy and let the disease do the work of filmmaking. The simple mention of Alzheimer’s shoves audiences into sadness and worry, and raw feeling takes over while the movie just lets it happen.

In 2001, Mike Nichols directed Emma Thompson in a TV movie called Wit. Thompson plays a college teacher already in a hospital dying of cancer. But the film goes way beyond a vision of a woman’s decline. Wit makes you feel as if death itself faces a mammoth struggle if it wants to take this brilliant, spirited person. Thompson’s character shows a ton of knowledge and creativity and, as the title says, wit, as she refuses to fade away slowly — she’s vibrant to the end.

At 83, Anthony Hopkins brings his rich Welsh voice and remarkable screen presence to The Father. He’s powerful; he’s a force to deal with. Daughter Anne can’t just toss him aside and ignore the strength this man has mustered throughout his life.

The kicker, though, is that what’s onscreen may only be in Anthony’s mind. You don’t know if what you see takes place in some actuality right now, or if these are Anthony’s thoughts, or if he still has memory to relive these moments, or if this is what might go on in the mind of a man suffering dementia.

The Father makes you wonder if the intellect of a person with Alzheimer’s might still be this robust, although hidden from outsiders. It makes one think maybe we simply don’t know what’s happening inside such a person, and, of course, The Father reminds us that much about life is utterly mysterious. The Father is certainly a sad picture at times, but it’s no quiet descent into emptiness.

Howie Movshovitz came to Colorado in 1966 as a VISTA Volunteer and never wanted to leave. After three years in VISTA, he went to graduate school at CU-Boulder and got a PhD in English, focusing on the literature of the Middle Ages. In the middle of that process, though (and he still loves that literature) he got sidetracked into movies, made three shorts, started writing film criticism and wound up teaching film at the University of Colorado-Denver. He continues to teach in UCD’s College of Arts & Media.
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