Using flashback in movies has been going on since…well…whenever it was first used.
Taking a count of the first four years of Film Club, I found that flashback could be said to have been a feature of Barney’s Version, Incendies, The Tree of Life, Moonrise Kingdom, The Master, Lincoln, The Place Beyond the Pines, Camilla Rewinds, Blue Jasmine, Ida, The Great Beauty, Gone Girl, Felony and Only Lovers Left Alive – nearly half of the 30 movies viewed.
In The Father (2020), director Florian Zeller is more effective without flashing back. He takes the viewer into the mind of Anthony (Anthony Hopkins) and presents vignettes of the small pieces of memory still available to him as he struggles to understand why he is in a home for the aged.
Yet we don’t see it this way.
Zeller, who co-wrote the screenplay from his own play, tells the tale in what appears to be chronological order as Anthony’s Alzheimer’s Disease takes hold.
We don’t see Anthony in the twilight home until the last crucial scene where he completely unravels before his nurse Catharine. It is harrowing to watch but reality – or its complete lack – has finally set in for the patient.
In earlier scenes, Anthony is confident, arrogant and rather rude to his devoted daughter Anne (Olivia Colman). Gradually this demeanour diminishes as his confusion becomes more pronounced.
Where the viewer begins thinking he is in his own apartment and master of his domain, it emerges Anthony is staying in his daughter Anne’s abode where she lives with her boyfriend Paul (Rufus Sewell).
A would-be carer, Laura (Imogen Poots), looks like Anthony’s other daughter Lucy, who he believes to be a travelling artist. It is soon apparent, though never mentioned, she is dead and he has not accepted it.
Catharine appears in his reminiscence as another version of Anne and a male nurse in the final scene, Bill (Mark Gatiss), is a Paul substitute in another part. The audience is sometimes as confused as Anthony.
However, it is Zeller’s cinematic trick. What we are seeing is Anthony cobbling together fragments of his life before inevitably being placed in full-time care. His images of the two Annes, the two Pauls and the two Lucys (she turns up in a later scene, apparently just before death on a hospital gurney) mirror those of his confused mind.
He remembers small pieces of scenes he has witnessed but cannot correctly connect them to any kind of order or understanding. Forgetting where he has left his watch and accusing his carer of stealing and physical violence committed by the Bill/Paul character suggest two of the scourges of institutional life. Are these imagined or real?
To achieve this, you need a special performer and in Hopkins they could not have been more accurate in choice. It is a stand-out depiction of curmudgeonly old age withering into self-doubt from an actor in his seventh decade of his craft.
Hopkins first on-screen role was in a 1960s TV series A Matter of Degrees and he probably first came to notice with a cinematic public in 1968, playing Richard with Peter O’Toole (Henry II) and Katharine Hepburn (Eleanor of Aquitaine) in The Lion in Winter. In this he was Richard Burton Light but later shook off the yoke of his fellow Welshman to create his own style.
He was the sympathetic Doctor Frederick Treves to John Hurt’s The Elephant Man (1980) but gained global prominence with his Hannibal Lechter in The Silence of the Lambs (1991). It is testament to that role that it needs no explanation.
It was the first of two Oscars for Best Actor and his second, for The Father, is as equally deserved.
Colman continues her recent fine body of work as Anne. Patient and understanding, she is the template for daughters across the world having to face the situation of having to put a parent in a nursing home. “Am I being selfish or do I have the right to a life too?” radiates unsaid from her expressions.
The Father is a movie of merit, beautifully brought to cinematic life by its author.