97 minutes in someone else's mind

27 July 2021

The Father is no ordinary film. In fact, I emerged from my first visit to the cinema in over two years feeling like I had just woken from a very strange and powerful dream. Florian Zeller’s production is a unique and devastating portrayal of dementia, starring Anthony Hopkins and Olivia Coleman, with characteristically sinister appearances from Mark Gatiss. While it is advertised as a drama, it could equally be described as a time story, thriller, or even in places a black comedy. But all of these suggest some kind of narrative and to me… it felt less like I was being told a story and more like I had spent 97 minutes in someone else’s mind. My son hit the nail on the head when he said afterwards, 'that wasn’t really a film, it was an experience'. 

Although we are never explicitly told this, the main character Anthony clearly suffers from dementia and there are enough hallmark characteristics for anyone to quickly identify the diagnosis – repeated questions, loss of significant personal memories, not recognising loved ones, general confusion and wandering around at night. His daughter Anne faces the heart-wrenching challenge of how to balance her own life with his needs, a dilemma that is all too familiar to me and will be to many others. Anthony is a charming, intelligent and fiercely independent man who desperately wants to retain control and agency over his own life.

Much of this was what I might have expected to see in a dramatic representation of dementia, and it was accurately and powerfully portrayed. But where Zeller really excels, is in quietly and unexpectedly drawing the viewer into a place where they are no longer watching the story but living it. There is an 'Inside No.9' / 'Black Mirror' feel to the deeply unsettling way that everyday mundane events are juxtaposed by surreal and unexpected experiences. Like Anthony, we no longer know what to believe and what to doubt. We feel relieved and grounded each time he finds his watch or opens the curtains to see the familiar corner shop outside, but we also experience his fear and panic as facts are shattered and the truth dissolves.

It is hardly surprising that Hopkins won an Oscar for this film. His performance is outstanding, as is Coleman’s. If I had one criticism, it would be that the setting and opportunities might not be relatable to by everyone – the main characters live in leafy West London and can afford private medical care. Nevertheless, The Father captures and conveys the lived experience of memory loss brilliantly and devastatingly – the distortion of time, the disorientation for people and places, and the extraordinary vulnerability of no longer being able to trust what you think you know. Paranoid behaviours, emotional outbursts, distress and bewilderment no longer seem unreasonable.

Throughout the film I was often reminded of Clive Wearing, as well as my amnesic collaborator Claire and my own mum who has a diagnosis of Alzheimer’s Disease. Like Anthony, all of these people are intelligent, logical people who are continually navigating a world without that simple but crucial ability to remember what they see and hear. The Father reminds us what that feels like and while it is difficult to watch, I will certainly be using this as an educational resource for students. I would highly recommend it to anyone who wants or needs to understand what it is like to live without memory. There is no happy ending or resolution, so it leaves the viewer with many questions but also with very important insight. 

- Reviewed by Professor Catherine Loveday, University of Westminster.