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'The Father': Our Father Vince Has a Personal Reaction to the Acclaimed Dementia Drama

| April 7, 2021 | By

Our producer-at-large Father Vince Kuna, C.S.C., a 2016 USC film-school grad, does a regular feature here called BASED ON, looking at literary (or other) works adapted into TV or movies.

The Father, written and directed by Florian Zeller, based on her play of the same title.

[Spoiler alert]

I mentioned in my analysis of the News of the World adaptation that 2020 would be known for watchable but not necessarily re-watchable films. Since last writing, though, I’ve partaken of a piece of humble pie.

Nomadland, and the documentaries The Mole Agent and 76 Days ranked among the best. The Father, an immersive tale about the title character’s (Anthony Hopkins) struggle with dementia, emerges as the top film from last year.

Also, in 2015, my father was diagnosed with early-stage dementia, and the film hit close to home on a personal level.

The Father, From the Stage to the Screen

Reading the play prior to receiving the screener, I noted the truthfulness of the dialogue: the father repeats himself; he’s often confused when conversing with loved ones; the daughter whispers her frustrations in terse monologue.

I didn’t remember much of the plot after reading it -- such is the limitation of reading a play written to be performed – and I maintained an objective distance. For all the wonders of live theater, spatial distance remains the one drawback.

The Oscar-winning Birdman simulated the production of a play, filming in a “oner,” with the viewer kept at the same distance from the action on the screen as if seated in a theater away from the stage.

In adapting The Father for the screen, Zeller takes full advantage of what film offers. As in the play, two actresses portray daughter Anne at different ages: the Oscar-nominated The Crown star Olivia Colman and Olivia Williams (credited as “The Woman”).

The casting choice approximates what a person battling dementia experiences. Hopkins’ character remembers his daughter (Williams) from the past very well, but becomes bewildered with his daughter (Colman) in the present day.

Note, the actress playing the daughter at a younger age does not appear in flashbacks but in the “now,” as does the daughter at the older age.

As the son of a father currently suffering from dementia, I know my dad could entertain you with stories prior to 2015, the year he was diagnosed, but can’t remember much of anything since. The short-term memory has digressed to the point he will ask me several times in one phone call when will be the next time I will visit.

Bringing the Reality of Dementia to Film

Film editor Yorgos Lamprinos also simulates the confusion a dementia patient experiences. As the story evolves, we’re offered glimpses indicating that the story (signified by the repeated dialogue by two actors playing the same character) might be repeating itself in the father’s home -- and the daughter’s apartment, and the nursing home.

Lamprinos cuts between wide shots and close-ups, sometimes alternating between the two actors as they come into focus. Is it Colman’s Anne or Williams’? We squint to see, at the same time Hopkins’ character performs the mental gymnastics to ascertain who it is.

Editing, the one discipline unique to filmmaking, messes with spatial distance for the sake of the story.

You Don't Need an Epic Tale to Want to See It in a Theater

I once said only epic films like 1917, with its sweeping scenes of the World War I battlefield, would be the reason to return to in-person theater. Yet, The Father makes the case as well and arguably pulls off a mightier feat because of its claustrophobic limitations.

Credit for this goes to the Oscar-nominated production designer (Peter Francis) for keeping the story entirely indoors, again a reminder of a dementia patient’s world.

My mother noted my father hasn’t minded being cooped up for an entire year, because he doesn’t conceive life has been this way for that amount of time. At least he’s at home, a place he loves.

The Father and 1917 both using diametrically different styles have done what virtual reality has yet to do -- create an immersive experience of what it is to be wracked with dementia and soldiering a trench war, respectively. It’s an experience that can’t quite be captured on a laptop, I lamented not seeing The Father at a theater. Remember those?

Ultimately, though, we watch storytelling for the performances, whether it be in film or live theater. Hopkins’ performance is simply one for the ages. For his sake, and the efforts of the creatives and those in the technical department, they’ve done better than any award-winners so far this season.

For those family members with a loved one battling dementia, the filmmakers simulated as closely as possible what it is to live in that world, and for that, they’ve rendered a public service.


Image: Sony Pictures Classics

Click here to visit Father Vince Kuna’s IMDB page.

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