Apr 16, 2021 | LIFE | By Andrew Rodden | Illustration by Patil Khakhamian

What I thought would be horrid Oscar bait, Florian Zeller’s 2020 film “The Father” was a clean drama-thriller: one that’s surreal, heart wrenching, and bleak. It’s surprising this film was so bleak, and I welcome such challenging material getting Academy Award buzz, especially since Academy voters typically have the worst taste on planet Earth. 

Anthony Hopkins stars as Anthony, an aging father who grows increasingly wary of the people around him. After sending his caretaker away on charges for theft – he falsely framed her for stealing his watch – Anthony’s daughter, Anne (Olivia Colman), visits his flat in London. She tells him she’s moving out to Paris with her boyfriend and tries to convince curmudgeonly old Anthony it’s best he has someone to watch after him. He doesn’t think so, refusing to be looked after by anyone but himself. 

Dismissing Anne, Anthony continues with his evening, free from pesky people who care about him, but finds a strange man sitting in his living room, a man he has never seen before. The man assures Anthony that he is Anne’s husband (Mark Gatiss) … what’s going on here?

Anthony becomes panicked, but calms down once Anne walks through the door, but realizes it isn’t her! A woman (Olivia Williams) who looks like her is pretending to be Anne, or is she the real Anne? Anthony struggles to decipher this strange situation, and further loses his grasp on reality for the rest of the film. 

Hopkins delivers easily one of the best performances of the year, ranging from charming to cruel, from speculative to vulnerable. He carries “The Father” on his back, and his performance is hands-down the most appealing component of the film. This is meant to be a portrayal of dementia, and Zeller effectively conveys the painful path of forgetting the faces of those you love. The audience is right there with Anthony, forced to decode normal interactions between characters, which are ultimately more akin to impossible riddles.

The style of “The Father” is clean and bare, but almost too much so. The camerawork is precise, deliberate while remaining subtle, but it still feels too restrained, even for a movie so driven by character psyche as opposed to, say, complicated action or even the events of a plot. 

With such a small cast, one would think this movie was filmed during the pandemic, but the movie actually premiered at the 2020 Sundance Film Festival, generating substantial hype. “The Father” is adapted from Zeller’s own theatre production of the same name, so a small cast for a play adaptation makes sense.

Also, the main set of the film (dressed differently from one scene to the next and intended to be eerily uncanny) reminds me of the physical limits of the stage, where you often see similarly minimalist sets.

I would label “The Father” more theatrical than cinematic, but the film is still an ominous blend of theatre and film, and is an effective reminder the two mediums are not as separate as one might think.

 “The Father” was nominated for a whopping six Oscars, namely for Best Picture and Best Actor for Sir Anthony Hopkins. It irks me that a decent movie like this still falls into the Oscar bait marketing-sleaziness of, say, “Green Book” (2018) or “Hacksaw Ridge” (2016). Maybe that’s just showbiz, or maybe the companies who churn out movies solely for the Academy Awards are getting smarter.

At any rate, the “Oscar buzz” around movies you don’t hear about until a month before the Oscars is sickening, and marketing around “The Father” falls victim to this very same thing. Still, “The Father” is among the rare movies that live up to their Oscar buzz, and is worth the watch during this so-called “awards season,” or at any other time of year. 

“The Father” is available to rent on-demand and is showing in theaters where available.

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