The Father
Credit: Sean Gleason/Sony Pictures Classics

The Father is hardly the first prestige drama to address dementia — in fact, it's actually the third in this past month alone, after Supernova and the Viggo Mortenson-helmed Falling — but it manages to do something films like this rarely do: portray the real-time ravages of the disease from the inside out.

That writer-director Florian Zeller, working from his own acclaimed 2012 French-language play Le Pére, is able to turn devastating illness into a kind of disjointed poetry — and one still threaded with real emotional resonance — is a testament to his skill as a first-time filmmaker. But also to the beautifully shaded performances he elicits from his stars, including Anthony Hopkins as Anthony, a retired engineer falling deeper into the twilit recesses of his mind, and Olivia Colman as his long-suffered daughter and caretaker.

A proudly dapper gentleman of a certain age, Anthony mostly potters around the confines of his spacious London flat (or is it really his?), and seems to take a combative pleasure in provoking Colman's beleaguered Anne, whether he's needling her about her love life or roundly dismissing her attempts to bring in professional minders to look after him. They're all petty thieves, he insists, and entirely unnecessary anyway.

But the faces of these various home aids (played primarily by Imogen Poots and Olivia Williams) seem to shift in ways that increasingly don't make sense to him; so too do the men (Rufus Sewell and Mark Gatiss) Anne is supposedly married to. And where is his other grown daughter, the one that Poots' pretty, laughing Laura reminds him of?

The less Anthony is sure of, the more imperious he tends to be — puffed with outraged dignity one moment and coolly dismissive the next. He bluffs and bristles, wheedles and charms; at one point, he even does a jaunty little soft-shoe. Still, the threads of his life are loosening, and Hopkins' eyes, still a keen Siberian-husky blue, register more and more that things are not where and how they should be.

Though nearly of all this takes place inside apartment walls, Zeller somehow staves off claustrophobia; there's a warm, painterly quality to the light that pours in, and a graceful pacing to the script (translated and adapted by Atonement screenwriter Christopher Hampton) that allows its growing resonance to creep in, quietly.

The skillfulness of the telling, paradoxically, can make The Father feel at times almost too painful to sit through; as the story shifts elliptically in and out of time, Anthony's losses become our own. By its end though, the movie has become a profoundly moving meditation not just on perception and reality, but also on the limits of familial care — and all the ways that illness can make the people we love the most unrecognizable, even to themselves. Grade: B+

(The Father is in select theaters Friday and comes to VOD March 26.)

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