The temptation when adapting a play to the screen is to preserve it precisely as it already is — to hit record on the camera and let the actors do their thing. The argument, I suppose, is that this method makes theatergoing a little more accessible. By preserving the spirit of the stage in a movie, these filmmakers hope to recapture what it felt like to see these stories live (for those of us who can’t afford the lofty Broadway prices, and also don’t live in New York).
But a play is a play, and a film is a film. The magic of the theater is that it’s live. And starry-eyed as I may be about the possibility of the cinema, “live” is not exactly in its repertoire. So if you’re going to adapt a play into a film, actually adapt it! You’ve already lost the magic of the theater, so make good use of the magic of the movies — the unique possibilities I already alluded to.
When I watched “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom” on Netflix, I admired the performances and even the cinematography. But as I watched the spit fly from Chadwick Boseman’s mouth and the sweat drip down from Viola Davis’ chin, I thought to myself, “I wish I saw this live.” Of course, I wouldn’t have been able to see the spit or the sweat in this hypothetical situation, but at least I would have experienced that energy. At least I would have been inside the room where it happens. Speaking of which, I didn’t even bother with “Hamilton” on Disney+, which quite literally hit record and let the actors do their thing.
All of that is to say that “The Father” is special. Now, it’s my understanding that some of the elements I’m about to discuss were present in “La Père,” the play by Florian Zeller, who also directed the film. But new or old, they transition to the medium of movies quite nicely (and in some cases, better than before).
Yeah, yeah, but what is it about? “The Father” follows Anthony (Anthony Hopkins) and his daughter, Anne (Olivia Colman). Anthony, in his old age, lives a slow, quiet life in his flat somewhere in London. But is it really his flat, or is it actually Anne’s? Is the painting above the fireplace of a sailboat, or a dancer? And is Anne really played by Olivia Colman, or is she played by Olivia Williams?
Anthony, we learn, is suffering from dementia. The brilliance of “The Father” is that it doesn’t just depict this condition from Anne’s perspective — from the outside looking in, like many admirable (but less accomplished) movies that came before it — but instead, through the eyes of Anthony. Characters are sometimes played by strangers; we hear sounds, but we can’t locate their source; the Oscar-nominated production design by Peter Francis and Cathy Featherstone subtly shifts around props and furniture. The film strives for understanding, not just empathy, and Zeller makes use of every cinematic tool at his disposal to do so.
He is lucky, of course, to be working with two of the most skilled performers of their respective generations. Hopkins’ greatness needs no explanation, but in vain, I will try: His performance is so powerful because of his refusal to make his character docile. To the contrary, Anthony is callous and cruel, and by leaning into those flaws, we come to understand how loved ones like Anne might grow to be frustrated. Speaking of which, Colman is excellent; while her Oscar-winning role in “The Favourite” was much bigger and boisterous, in “The Father” she works in subtleties so minute that her character comes to feel like someone you might see on the street, not the screen.
Toward the end of the film, Anthony compares living with dementia to a tree in the winter — his leaves, one by one, having blown away in the wind. After 90 or so minutes, “The Father” can admittedly grow a bit repetitive. But it’s also quite befitting of the film as a whole for it to end with such a clear-eyed insight. 8/10
This review was originally published on April 7, 2021 in The Observer, the daily newspaper of the University of Notre Dame. You can read it here.