Florian Zeller’s film director debut The father offers more twists and turns than one might expect from a dementia-oriented Anthony Hopkins car, leaving the audience with a few questions at the end. The film suddenly appeared on most viewers’ radar when Hopkins disrupted Chadwick Boseman for best male lead at the close of the 2021. Oscar ceremony. Controversy aside, Zellers The father features a career-high performance from Hopkins as well as an expertly plotted script from Zeller, whose instruction gives the film a perspective that connotes MC Escher’s confusing artwork. But the story of the decorated 2020 film begins in 2012 with the premiere of The father.
Zeller had written novels as well as plays for stage and screen before The father (in his native French), which garnered him widespread critical acclaim in the theater community from 2012. The father is not even the first attempt to bring the concept to the screen: the French film Florida (2015) uses the bones in Zeller’s play and achieves similar critical acclaim – especially for his old lead appearance. In 2019, it was announced that Zeller would make his directorial debut in the world of film by adapting the English version of his famous play. He had written the lead role specifically for Hopkins and thought he was the “greatest living actor” [via Deadline].
Hopkins delivers in a big way on Zeller’s praise and gives his self-proclaimed character Anthony (the “father” in question) a maturity and nuance that is only available to such an experienced veteran in the craft. Anthony’s daughter Anne (Olivia Colman) is trying to find a long-term care solution for her stubborn but often confused parent, while her husband Paul (Rufus Sewell) has grown tired of the inconvenience this dynamic has given their marriage. The catch is this: the film is told subjectively from Anthony’s point of view, and given that his point of view is influenced by his dementia, certain facts seem to change over the course of the narrative – for the audience as well as for Anthony.
What happens at the end of the Father
At the end of The father, Anthony’s (or rather, his daughter’s) apartment has reached the end of its several iterations and has become a nursing home, where he is cared for by his nurse Catherine (Olivia Williams, credited as “The Woman”) and her assistant Bill (Mark Gatiss , credited as “The Man”). The father actors have played several characters as a thematic representation of dementia; these caretakers are faces Anthony has seen before, after perceiving his daughter and son-in-law separately, who look like Catherine and Bill at some point. It is clear that Anthony’s grasp of reality has fallen to a point where he can no longer muster the effort to try to analyze at all what of his memories are real and what are incoherent compositions of his experiences.
In an emotionally stomach-churning scene that forms the climax of the film, Anthony remembers his mother of Catherine and suddenly wants to go home while tears overwhelm him. He confides in Catherine that he feels he is “losing all his leaves” in his twilight and has become free from the things that gave his life value. While he cries in her arms, Catherine puts him down and tells him that he will not soon remember this discomfort, that they will go for a walk later and everything will be fine. Eventually, the camera ventures out of his window and observes the trees whose leaves rustle in the wind. It’s a heartbreaking and personal moment in the film that lifts the emotional aspects of his character’s story, which is often filled with so much confusion, hazy memories and a lot of uncertainty as to what is real and what is not.
What was real, and what was in Anthony’s head in the Father
Because of the film’s subjective, labyrinthine quality, it’s easy to wonder what really happened to Anthony and what he imagined or mistakenly put together in his mind. The Anthony Hopkins film puts the patriarch at the forefront and encourages the audience to feel empathy with him in a way that reflects the character’s sense of falling victim to his surroundings. He often remembers faces incorrectly, especially Anne as Catherine and Paul as Bill. In one shot, he is strangled by Anne in her sleep. In another scene, Paul physically assaults him. In yet another, he discovers that his daughter and son-in-law speak ill of him, only to join them, leave, and return to the same scenario he first encountered. Certainly as a minimum, the suffocation was imagined as he lives through to the end of the film, but it underscores the sense of vulnerability Anthony feels in the hands of Paul, who very likely hit him and spoke rudely against him.
Then there is the question of his midnight visit with his youngest daughter, Lucy. It is suggested that she had a serious accident and is no longer in the picture – probably dead. Anthony, who is unable to remember this due to his dementia, constantly brings up the subject, especially with reference to how much his latest caretaker resembles her. Later in the film, he explores the apartment and finds out that it has become a hospital, where he finds Lucy, bloody and in a brace, lying in a bed with all sorts of medical machines around her. Suddenly he wakes up from what was obviously a dream or a memory and he finds himself in his nursing home where he will spend the rest of the movie. Lucy is dead makes sense given how emotional Anthony becomes when he remembers her. Moreover, his treatment of his now-living daughter, Anne, is harsh, as if he is angry at her for having survived, while his more favorite daughter is no longer present. There is a weight in these moments, though what can be analyzed is that Anne is also taking care of her father, who is often cruel to her because of his dementia, but also his underlying resentment towards her and that that happened to Lucy.
Did Anthony die at the end of the father?
At the time he is in the care of a nursing home, Anthony’s understanding of the world around him has in The father has become so bad that it necessitates constant monitoring. The film ends with the promise that he and Catherine will continue a routine that has clearly been going on, even though the audience and Anthony would not be able to tell it. Despite the perceived obvious destination for a film focusing on a parent with dementia, the film does not end up with a shot of Anthony drifting peacefully into the afterlife, but instead onto the trees outside his room. Although his fate is almost certain, the film has more to say about his final situation than just whether he lived or died.
The real meaning of the father’s end
It’s hard to find a positive takeaway in a story where the subject is as fundamentally terminal as Father’s, but Zeller manages to walk this tight leash using a visual metaphor. While Catherine comforts a despairing and disconnected Anthony, she identifies the comfort of his condition: even though he is currently suffering from the weight of his termination, fortunately his dementia does not mean he has suffered. Instead of fighting old age or finding an overtly affirming ending where his daughter stays with him through the bitter end, Zeller approaches dementia moment by moment, with Catherine encouraging Anthony to focus on what is immediately before him.
In the end, people get old, kids live their lives, and that’s okay. It’s also interesting in the way the film tackles memories, where Anthony mostly loses himself in the moments that brought him some kind of emotional pain – he is often scared, crushed, afraid of being attacked because of his confusion or feeling out of place. To that end, the film is deep because of the way it explores dementia as a labyrinthine journey through the mind of one who has it. By the exit of The father, the tree still has its leaves, and that is perhaps the most optimistic statement about Anthony’s condition of all. He lived a life whether it would be considered good or bad (or both), and the leaves of the tree are signs of growing and flourishing in life as it cycles on no matter what.
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