By David Canfield
January 20, 2020 at 05:30 PM EST
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The Father

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Over the past five years, the role has won the highest acting theater honors around the world — for Frank Langella, the Tony; for Kenneth Cranham, the Olivier; for the late Robert Hirsch, the Molière. Now, as it transitions to the screen for the first time, what will it bring Anthony Hopkins?

Fresh off his first Oscar nomination in more than 20 years for The Two Popes, Hopkins has become one of the hottest topics of this year’s Sundance Film Festival, which kicks off later this week, with his turn as Andre in Florian Zeller’s The Father. His performance is but one big reason the film was acquired by Sony Pictures Classics, amid interest from several other buyers, ahead of its debut next Monday in Park City, Utah.

Credit: Courtesy of Sundance Institute

An alternately disorienting and devastating drama, The Father explores the relationship between Andre, a patriarch battling dementia, and his daughter, Anne, struggling in the increasingly demanding role of caretaker. Hopkins meets his match in this version of the story, with Oscar winner Olivia Colman portraying Anne.

The Father will rightly generate attention for its performances, but the film is a landmark for Zeller, its writer and director. Indeed, while American audiences may not be as familiar — even after The Father scored him a Tony nod for Best Play in 2016 — Zeller ranks among Europe’s most prolific and acclaimed dramatists. The French writer has published several novels and around a dozen plays; he’s won his home country’s highest theater honors, with actors including Langella, Isabelle Huppert, and Jonathan Pryce recently taking on his characters. And yet The Father marks the first time he’s ever adapted his own material for the screen. It’s also his directorial debut.

The timing makes sense: The Father has been a global hit, with original runs sprouting everywhere from England to China to India to Brazil. “It was very powerful to me to realize that it was, in a way, a very universal idea,” Zeller tells EW in an exclusive first-look interview. “I had the conviction that film could be done based on that.”

Of course, The Father was originally written and performed in French (as La Père), so why the decision to make the movie in English? “When I was dreaming about the film, the first and only face that came to me was Anthony Hopkins,” he says. “It was the very beginning of everything for me.” (As for Colman, going a bit against type as the wearied daughter: “I have always seen her as a very heartbreaking actress.”)

As a play, The Father employs innovative staging within its single setting (the apartment that Anne and Andre share) and manipulates its timeline. The boundless feeling of open theater is replaced here by claustrophobic camerawork, but the narrative effect remains mostly the same — to mirror Andre’s experience. “The idea was never just to tell a story about dementia from the outside — it was to give the opportunity to the audience to experience signs of dementia, as if they were in the main character’s head,” Zeller explains. “I really wanted to keep that narrative in the adaptation.”

And Zeller was surprised, even still, by how similar the movie’s emotional experience was to the play’s. It speaks to the story’s inherent resonance. “Everyone has a father, and we are all connected to this dilemma: What do I do with people I love when they are losing their bearings?” he says. “This is a very painful, sad issue; in a way, we are all concerned by that. The way out is the way to share those concerns and those emotions.”

The adaptation took years to get off the ground, with Zeller left wondering if it would ever come together. “In a way, that was the hardest [part],” he concedes. But turning to a whole new medium, even with such gifted and seasoned actors to work with, was still a profound challenge. “It is difficult,” Zeller continues. “But it has to be difficult — to test your will, and desire to do something.”

The Father premieres Monday, Jan. 27, at the Sundance Film Festival.

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The Father

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