‘The Father’ relies on stagebound gimmickry

Treated as a Great Actor by audiences and his peers, Hopkins is actually a hambone like mentor Richard Burton, at his most commanding when he leavens the bluster with chuckled asides. Playing the eponymous character in Florian Zeller’s adaptation of his own play gives the eighty-two-year-old actor the chance to flaunt every trick. In a too cute bit of meta gymnastics, Hopkins is Anthony, an opera buff cared for by his increasingly harried daughter Anne (Olivia Colman). A missing watch — stolen, Anthony insists — becomes a leitmotif. She will leave for Paris with her lover, she tells him in the film’s opening minutes, a development that stirs Anthony’s largeness of spiri: “You mean a man?” Later he will observe, “She’s not very bright.”

Then the set changes: the furniture isn’t the same; the pictures on the wall are gone. Caretaker Laura (Imogen Poots), whose slavish and ingratiating manner irritates Anthony, may or may not be his long dead daughter. We’re no longer in Anthony’s flat — it’s Anne’s, shared with a peevish lover (Rufus Sewell, the spitting image of a cleaned up Roger Daltrey) with no patience for her father’s mercurial states of mind and occasional eloquence.

Beholden to a puzzle box structure, The Father uses these stage conventions to suggest Anthony’s addled state; we’re never sure whether what we see happened, is happening, or projections of his dementia. This stuff entertains for a while, but The Father turns rather sour: it gets its kicks from punishing an old man on the verge of collapse — an unavoidable development in films like this. Wild Strawberries, Tokyo Story, even Amour didn’t begin with a gimmick from which the directors hoped to extract pathos, and Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom showed how stage conventions can function for the sake of character development. What remains is a pyrotechnical display of Anthony Hopkins’ skill and a setup I liken to spent fireworks. Imagine his Henry Wilcox, still a chuckling old sinner, ten years after the film and demented, or the Pope Benedict XVI he played in last year’s The Two Popes stripped of ceremony, office, and dignity (The Two Popes ,The Father — is Hopkins choosing scripts on the basis of their generic titles?).  As The Father reaches its conclusion, the old ham has lost his salt but retains his sweetness.

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