The Father Review

One of the main joys of film festivals is to go into a film knowing as little as possible, guided by the hopes that the programmers have selected something worthy of your time. I’d missed Florian Zeller’s film The Father at its Sundance premiere, conflating it with another film about an ailing old-man as one of several dramas I skipped in order to focus on that fest’s remarkable doc slate. At TIFF I was allowed to finally dig into this movie, and it’s immediately become one of my favourite of this wild and troubled year.

I’ve run out of ways to say “this film is best explored knowing nothing going in,” but in this case the narrative structure is so integral to its success I can merely plead that you just trust this writer, give the film a shot, and hopefully you’ll be as enthralled as I was. The review could end here – it’s a masterpiece, with incredible performances, go in knowing nothing and prepare to have your mind blown.

For those wanting a bit more (and, frankly, to conform to regular expectations for these review things), I can admit that this may be Anthony Hopkins’ definitive role. His portrayal mixes bewilderment with a fierce, proud sense of certitude is Lear-like in its sophistication without ever a hint of overplaying to the back of the theatre. Olivia Colman exhibits once again her peerless capacity to portray frustration and pain with the most simple of glances, her patience tested throughout by her father’s changing modes and capacities.

The rest of the cast is equally laudable, from Ms. Williams, a second Olivia, who perfectly portrays the doppelgangerian aspect of the narrative. Mark Gatiss, Imogen Poots, and Rufus Sewell each rise to the heights of the lead performance, with bristling and nuanced takes throughout.

Zeller’s narrative shtick is by intent theatrical, and the claustrophobic setting and heightened circumstances certainly in lesser hands would have come across as “stagey”. But to my immense delight, the film absolutely shines with these elements placed in the cinematic context, employing devices unique to the medium, from montage to near-invisible changes in set decoration and art direction – to take the tale’s trick up to a level impossible on stage.

It’s through these unsettling moments that are purely cinematic, particularly through editing, that elevates Zeller’s work from mere translation of his stageplay to big screen to something that feels fundamentally a story to be told through this medium. While Zeller’s experience is obviously enormous, this is his debut film, and the result exhibits none of the reticence or even showiness that often results in these cases. Instead, we get a pitch perfect performance wrapped in a visually compelling presentation that employs throughout the unique techniques of moviemaking to elevate the narrative to previously unreachable heights.

It’s this collision of form and content that makes The Father so exhilarating, helping audiences through technique feel the same sense of discombobulation that the lead character is experiencing. We’re meant to not only confront the fragmented structure, but made to feel our own sense of security slip away. It’s unnerving while watching, it’s gut-wrenching when one considers such a downfall is near inevitable for us all. The film leaves its mark by making us, briefly, consider not only our own mortality but our impending doom, for those lucky enough to make it that far along the race. Forget the local tragedy of his one family, this is a horror that may befit us all unless the end comes even sooner.

This bleak and profound meditation on diminishing faculties results in a shattering work of cinema. I was left shaking with the results, drawn in completely to the film’s shifts in tone and character, anchored throughout by Hopkin’s impeccable performance. Truly a master work, the film illustrates as effectively as any how the mechanisms of art can be employed to amplify narrative, and how performances both broad and subtle can combine to deliver a symphony of emotions and moods. The Father truly is one of the greatest films of 2020, a timely and timeless tale that is deserving of far more attention than it’s likely to get during these complicated times.

/Film Rating: 9.5 out of 10

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About the Author

Jason Gorber is a film journalist and member of the Toronto Film Critics Association. He is the Managing Editor of ThatShelf.com, Features Editor at DTK Magazine and a critic for HighDefDigest.