After all the great work Anthony Hopkins has done in a magnificent career spanning some six decades, one comes away from the emotionally exhausting “The Father” wondering if Sir Anthony has ever been better than this. He’s that good playing a man who is furiously (and infuriatingly) raging against the dying of the light, even as his grip on reality becomes so tenuous there are times when he doesn’t even know where he is and doesn’t recognize his own grown daughter.
This is one of the most painfully realistic depictions of dementia in recent film history, and yes, that means “The Father” can be a tough viewing experience at times — but how can one be anything but grateful for the chance to see one of the world’s greatest actors doing such enormously moving work past his 80th birthday? With the French playwright Florian Zeller directing and co-writing “The Father” based on his 2012 play “Le Pere,” there’s a distinctly stage-y look to the story, which takes place primarily in two interior settings, But the Academy Award-level production design is a masterwork of subtle creativity, as certain changes in décor and even the floor maps add to the feeling of disorientation, and reflect the shifting sensibilities of Anthony (yes, Hopkins shares a first name with his character), who sometimes is absolutely sure of his surroundings — and other times looks as lost as a child who’s been separated from his parents in a department store.
The bulk of “The Father” transpires in the expansive, well-appointed London flat where Anthony has lived for decades; he’s as comfortable in the apartment as he is in his silk pajamas and bathrobe, which he sometimes wears all day. Anthony is clearly a well-educated, sophisticated, plain-spoken man who doesn’t cotton nonsense, but he’s also prone to bouts of paranoia, and often loses his place in time and drifts in and out of clarity. Anthony’s daughter Anne (the great Olivia Colman) is divorced and has put her life on hold to care for her father, but he fights every step of the way — until she announces she’s met someone and she’s moving to Paris, at which point he roars his disapproval and laments about what’s to become of him.
A short while later, a man Anthony doesn’t recognize (played by Mark Gatiss) turns up in the apartment, saying he’s Anne’s husband and this isn’t actually Anthony’s flat; he’s staying with them because he can no longer care for himself. Later on, Rufus Sewell takes over the role of Anne’s husband, and he’s downright cruel to Anthony as he blames him for ruining their lives and wants nothing more than for Anthony to die so they can get on with their lives. (Sewell has relatively little screen time yet manages to create one of the most horrific and monstrous characters in recent memory. He’s chillingly effective.) Confusing things even further, when Anne returns from running errands, she’s now played by Olivia Williams.
It’s a lot to keep track of, but the elegant writing and the superb performances actually make it relatively easy to follow the proceedings, even as we’re feeling a visceral empathy for Anthony’s feelings of disorientation and feel as if we’re drowning in a sea of confusion with him. There are moments when Hopkins roars like a wounded lion, but much of the performance is delivered in quieter notes, as when Anthony keeps losing his watch (the symbolism isn’t subtle) and feels lost without it, or when an upbeat new caregiver named Laura (Imogen Poots) arrives at the apartment, and for a fleeting hour or so, Anthony is as charming and captivating as we imagine he was for most of his life (though there are hints at tragedy and trouble in Anthony’s past).
The final moments of “The Father” are profoundly moving, with Anthony continuing to slip further away yet on some level aware of what’s happening to him — making it all the more heartbreaking. Even for an actor who has done it all on stage and screen, it must have been a challenge for Hopkins to play a man whose mind is playing the most terrible of tricks on him as his mortality creeps ever closer. What a brilliant, career-crowning performance he delivers.