The Father (2020)

While The Father takes an innovative approach to expressing the personal horrors of dementia as seen through the mind and eyes of the afflicted, this cinematic exercise is ultimately a plotless sequence of events that works best in its previous stage adaptation or in the original novel; moreover, it’s ostensibly an acting vehicle for the leads. That said, this is a film that should be required screening in a gerontology class. Not since One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest and Terms of Endearment has there been such a powerful film in the exploration of the affects dementia has on the mind of the afflicted themselves and their family. Interestingly both of the films mentioned won Best Picture, Best Director, Best Adapted Screenplay, and Best Lead Actress (with OFOtCN additionally winning Best Lead Actor, giving it the Top 5). What separates the referenced award-winning films from The Father is the screenplay, specifically the plot. Yes, The Father illustrates an emotional, powerful story, but there is more to a motion picture than just the emotional component. Think about the differences between a poem and a narrative. The former is emotionally-driven while the latter is plot-driven. For those whom may be unfamiliar with screenwriting, story and plot are not the same things. Story is a series of events recorded in their chronological order; whereas, plot is the deliberate arrangement of those events as to reveal dramatic, thematic, and emotional significance. I liken The Father to a poem more than a typical narrative work. What I appreciate about The Father is its approach to depicting dementia. Never before has a writer-director told a story through the eyes and mind of the individual afflicted with dementia. And it’s that perspective that sets this film apart from others that feature characters experiencing cognitive breakdowns.

A man (Anthony Hopkins) refuses all assistance from his daughter (Olivia Coleman) as he ages. As he tries to make sense of his changing circumstances, he begins to doubt his loved ones, his own mind, and even the fabric of his reality.

Before I elaborate on why this film fell short of following the basic rules of plotting, I must highlight the incredible performance by Sir Anthony Hopkins as our lead Anthony. It’s no surprise that he delivers a command performance. Whether it was for a future critically acclaimed film such as The Silence of the Lambs or a melodrama like Hearts in Atlantis, Hopkins puts every once of his being into every scene. He is truly an actor whom loves the art of performance, and recognizes the importance of delivering the same quality performance in every role, no matter of big or small. In The Father, Hopkins gifts audiences with a tour de force performance as an aging man that is slowly losing his grasp on what he knows to be reality and experiencing the psychological and emotional turmoil that comes part and parcel with dementia. His performance transcends the screen, and cuts straight to your heart. You will feel only a fraction of what his character feels, yet you will feel so completely drawn into the story that your views on demential will be radically challenged. That what this film is, it’s an actors vehicle. In addition to the mindblowing performance of Hopkins, Olivia Coleman delivers an exceptional performance as the daughter. Personally, I like this performance even more than her award-winning role in The Favourite. Essentially taking place in one room, it’s up to the actors to carry the scenes, and each of them keep the audience drawn into their characters.

While The Father showcases outstanding performances in an intimate setting, it neglects the importance of plotting. What we have here is a powerful story (made of a sequence of events) that is missing a deliberate arrangement of those events as to reveal the dramatic and thematic significance. Fortunately the film boasts a prolific amount of emotional conflict, but the characters are missing goals, goals they either achieve or fail to achieve. A well-written and developed screenplay is more than a script, it’s a map of through three acts that take the audience and the characters on a journey. While film scholars and critics may argue over the number and placement of the various dramatic turning points, there is little argument over the importance and necessity of a well-defined central character with a well-defined external goal. The Father certainly has a well-defined and developed central character in Anthony and even a clearly defined leading character in Ann; however, writer-director Florian Zeller does not provide any external goals for our central or supporting characters. Dealing with life is not a goal, it’s incidental to achieving the external goal. What is the external element that Anthony wants? Answer: his flat. Only problem is, the flat isn’t his from the beginning. Therefore, he doesn’t own a flat to lose. Since he doesn’t have an external goal, we are left with dealing with life, which is not a goal. And without a goal, we have no destination for the characters. What are these characters working towards? Answer: nothing.

Better suited for the stage, The Father is an innovative cinematic exercise that delivers exemplary performances in spades, and challenges our preconceived notions of what dealing with dementia must be like. We are ostensibly placed in the mind and body of an aging individual like has never been done before. But the film is held back from it’s full potential by neglecting the importance of plotting. But there is a powerful, emotionally driven sequence of events that taps into our empathy in true poetic fashion.

Ryan teaches screenwriting and film studies at the University of Tampa. If you like this article, check out the others and FOLLOW this blog! Interested in Ryan making a guest appearance on your podcast or contributing to your website? Send him a DM on Twitter or email him at RLTerry1@gmail.com! If you’re ever in Tampa or Orlando, feel free to catch a movie with or meet him in the theme parks!

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