Movies about old people are few, great movies about old people fewer still. Rarest of all are the ones which do us the great honor of refusing to sugarcoat the pill of aging and decline, their honesty a kind of blessing. It’s too early to say whether “The Father” belongs in the pantheon with “Amour,” “The Straight Story,” “Tokyo Story,” and “Make Way for Tomorrow,” but it’s a film to make you sit in the dark long after the credits have run and look deep into things from which we usually look away.
In theaters this week and on demand March 26, “The Father” is also a reminder of the prodigious talents of Anthony Hopkins, which we tend to overlook because he’s still lodged in the culture’s head as Hannibal the Cannibal. Over the course of his six-decade career, Hopkins has played it broad and played it fine, and sometimes he’s done both at the same time. That’s not easy to pull off. but as Anthony, a blustery London widower whose grip on reality slowly comes unglued over the course of the film, Hopkins does it again. This is a magnificent and harrowing performance: A lion in winter slowly coming to ground.
The movie has been adapted from a stage play, with the playwright, Florian Zeller, confidently directing his first project for the screen. (Christopher Hampton, of “Dangerous Liaisons” and “Atonement,” assisted with the screenplay.) But like that other recent miracle, “One Night in Miami,” “The Father” never feels stagy. In part that’s because the scenery keeps shifting around the protagonist, as if diabolical stagehands were moving the flats whenever his back was turned.
“The Father” begins in Anthony’s London apartment, or seems to. He is still lord of the castle, tyrant enough to drive away any caregiver his put-upon daughter Anne (Olivia Colman) dares to hire. But we see gaps in the armor — a paranoid certainty that someone, somewhere, has stolen his wristwatch, for one — and suddenly there’s a man in the living room (Mark Gatiss) who claims to be Anne’s husband. But wasn’t Anne divorced years ago? And why does the man insist the apartment is his?
What Zeller has done has built a mousetrap for Anthony and for the audience: a portrait of senescence as seen by the sufferer. Anne returns from the grocery store, only it’s a different woman (Olivia Williams) who says she’s Anne. When Anthony wonders why it has been so long since he has heard from his other daughter, Laura — his favorite, he cruelly reminds Anne — he doesn’t notice that everyone holds their breath and looks away. And his flat, that tiny bit of real estate that reassures the old man he’s still his own master — why does it keep subtly changing dimensions and doorways?
The direction is serene and firm, with the camerawork playing graceful tricks on the audience while Ludovico Einaudi’s cool score lowers the boom. The acting could not be improved upon. Colman gives Anne layers of sadness, frustration, and forbearance, and Rufus Sewell is brusquely sane as Paul, who may actually be Anne’s husband and who is unkind to Anthony so as to be kinder to his wife. Imogen Poots is charmingly gauche as the latest caregiver, the one who might last. But it’s Hopkins’s show and everyone knows it.
As the film is a slow shuffle into the night, so too is the star’s performance. Anthony begins “The Father” as patriarch in theory and fact, ordering everyone around and flirting with the new caregiver to prove he still has it. (She’s seen it all before.) The feebleness enters in tiny increments — hesitations and confusions, a gaze that dulls for a moment before flashing back to life, the frame gradually stooping with age and gravity. At a certain point, great fear appears in those ice-blue eyes, and because that’s an emotion we rarely associate with this actor it seems even more terribly moving.
“The Father” is ruthless, as it should be, and its reduction of Anthony is complete. I can say no more, other than to note that we end up in a rather different setting than we began — the production design is like that game where you keep replacing one letter of a word until you realize you have an entirely new one — and that everything that no longer makes sense to the old man now makes sense to us. But it would be wrong to say he has been humiliated. What happens to him will inevitably happen to you and me and all the people we know, and Zeller accompanies Anthony’s slow and frightening farewell with a steadiness of gaze that comes to feel like the deepest sympathy. In its way, “The Father” is a kindness.
Directed by Florian Zeller. Written by Christopher Hampton and Zeller, based on Zeller’s play. Starring Anthony Hopkins, Olivia Colman, Rufus Sewell, Imogen Poots, Olivia Williams. At Kendall Square, Boston theaters, suburbs; on VOD March 26. 97 minutes. R (strong language, thematic material)