The Father: an experience of dementia
by Jennifer Bryce
In a review in The Guardian, Benjamin Lee describes this movie as showing ‘the bone-chilling horror of living with dementia’:
Up to the time of seeing this movie I had imagined that the experience of dementia might be worse for the loved-ones, family close to the dementia sufferer. I now feel differently.
Florian Zeller, the writer-director of this movie first wrote a play, drawing on the experience of being very close to his grandmother who started to experience dementia when he was fifteen. Zeller said, ‘we go through that labyrinth… without being absolutely aware of where we are going’ — life is a puzzle and a piece is always missing.
The brilliance of this movie (and presumably the play, which I haven’t seen) is that we, the audience, get some insight by experiencing that labyrinth. For the first few minutes the movie seems to convey a dutiful daughter (Anne, played by Olivia Colman) visiting her father (Anthony, played by Anthony Hopkins) in a well-to-do flat in London — we assume it is his flat. He is listening to a counter tenor solo from Purcell’s King Arthur — an educated gentlemanly person. But then, we the audience, start to become confused. Is it his flat?
Both Anthony Hopkins and Olivia Colman are superb — sustaining this horror of confusion. Anthony in his early eighties, is still quite agile — he does crossword puzzles, can make a cup of tea, when the CD sticks he takes it out and cleans it — quite self sufficient in many ways. But who are these people coming into his flat? Intruders? Does Anne have a husband? Why doesn’t his younger daughter ever visit? (The audience finds out that she died in an accident some years ago — for a short time Anthony thinks that one of the carers reminds him of her — why does her painting sometimes vanish from its place over the mantlepiece?) And although the movie mainly shows life from Anthony’s perspective, there are glimpses of the tension caused by the distruption to Anne’s life. Sometimes Anthony says things that are hurtful — she is not the favourite daughter — Anne gives a momentary wince and then her attention returns to his needs.
Anthony constantly mislays his watch — is sometimes obsessive about the time (although it doesn’t really matter) — he has a ‘safe’ place, where his watch can usually be found by Anne. One time there is a fork there too. Is Anne going to live in France — abandoning him? He repeats the phrase that his daughter wouldn’t go to Paris because the French don’t speak English. But for much of the time he seems to be a fairly agile, well-dressed elderly man.
By the end of the movie the audience knows that Anne did go and live in France, but she visits her father frequently. He did have to go into a nursing home — something that, earlier in the movie, he said he would refuse to do. And his dementia has progressed — he seems to be completely lost, crying, and wanting his mother. The nurse looking after him tries to comfort him — a treat would be a walk in the park. What a hauntingly terrible life.