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STEPHEN THOMPSON, HOST:
In the film "The Father," Anthony Hopkins' character is suffering from dementia, which complicates the life of his daughter, played by Olivia Colman. Both Hopkins and Colman are nominated for Oscars, and the film is nominated for best picture. I'm Stephen Thompson, and today, we are talking about "The Father" on POP CULTURE HAPPY HOUR from NPR, so don't go away.
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THOMPSON: Welcome back. Joining us from her home in New York is film critic and culture journalist Bedatri D. Choudhury. Welcome back, Bedatri.
BEDATRI D CHOUDHURY: Thank you so much for having me, Stephen.
THOMPSON: Also with us from his home in New York is culture critic and reporter Mark Blankenship. He is also the co-author of the book "Madonna: A To Z." Welcome back, Mark.
MARK BLANKENSHIP: Hello. A delight to be here.
THOMPSON: It's great to have you both. So the story of "The Father" is fairly straightforward. Anthony Hopkins plays Anthony, whose fierce independence is complicated by his worsening dementia. Olivia Colman plays his daughter, Anne, who keeps trying to hire carers to help look after him. But the structure of the film is much more complicated than that, as director Florian Zeller finds ways to keep viewers guessing.
The film is based on Zeller's play, which is also called "The Father." He adapted it with screenwriter Christopher Hampton. They're both up for best adapted screenplay Oscars. As we mentioned at the top, "The Father" is nominated for other Oscars as well, including best picture, best actor for Anthony Hopkins, best supporting actress for Olivia Colman, plus editing and production design. "The Father" opened in theaters March 12. It's been available for personal video on demand for about a week and a half.
Bedatri, I'm going to start with you. What did you think of "The Father"?
CHOUDHURY: I really loved the film, and I really like the way they translate it from the play. I haven't watched the play, but I can imagine how it might look like onstage, and I like the way they've translated it into a film. It's all filmed indoors, so it's kind of like sometimes it gets very uncomfortable and claustrophobic, pretty much like the insides of Anthony's mind. And we see the narrative is that his mind is constantly confined within an endless loop of puzzles, sort of. Like, things keep moving all the time. And I love how the set - the apartment set - mirrors that and, like, things keep moving little by little, and, you know, it adds to the whole effect. And, of course, there's Anthony Hopkins and Olivia Colman. I also loved Olivia Williams. I think it's a fantastic piece where, like, you know, everything comes together.
BLANKENSHIP: Similarly, loved it. I've now watched it twice. And I mean this as a compliment when I say it's one of the most confusing movies I've ever seen, but the confusion is intentional. And, you know, Stephen, you said that the plot of the film is straightforward, which is true, but then on the other hand, there are these mysteries in the middle of the film that we can never unpack because, as Bedatri said, the structure of the story does reflect Anthony Hopkins' character's mind. So there are all of these things happening where characters will suddenly be played by different actors or the timeline doesn't make any sense at all, and we are never given the answer. We're never given the permission to feel comfortable and safe as an audience who understands better than the lead character. Instead, we have to live in the exact same confusion that he does. And for me, that created this emotional experience of feeling incredibly unsettled, but in a way that I wanted. Please make me uncomfortable. It was so great. I loved it.
THOMPSON: (Laughter) Yeah. I mean, I'm kind of trying to imagine watching this film and being like, give me more (laughter), not only because it was unsettling, but because it's - you know, it is a grim and difficult subject. Dementia is very painful for everyone involved, and I think this film captures it.
I made the mistake, I think, watching this film of really thinking it in terms of the Oscars and really thinking of it in terms of, is this the best picture of the year because it's been nominated for best picture, and that's why I'm watching it? And I think that was the wrong approach because I really wound up seeing it as, like, a group of performances and, like, is this production design the best production design instead of allowing myself to really get swept into the kind of fractured narrative of it.
I will say I didn't necessarily feel disoriented by - I mean, I understood that elements of it were confusing, and I sat there like, whoa, this character is now this person and, you know, kind of unlocking some of the puzzles. But I also really felt the whole way like I kind of knew exactly what it was doing and kind of knew where it was going. Like, I knew that what I was seeing, you know, was the product of kind of a different form of unreliable narrator, but I didn't necessarily feel, like, quite the emotional pull. I was watching great performers give great performances, but I didn't necessarily get swept into it quite the way you guys did. And now I feel like I'm defective somehow.
CHOUDHURY: You're not. You're not, Stephen.
BLANKENSHIP: Maybe you should just replace yourself with another person who uses your name, and that version of you will like the film.
BLANKENSHIP: So long as you're standing in front of a completely red wall.
CHOUDHURY: No, I mean, it's interesting you say that because for me, I - as wonderful as the performances are, I also thought that there's so much more to the film - like, for instance, the use of the opera music and when everything else is, like, so quiet, muted or, like, you know, it's just them talking and, like, the opera music being that constant in Anthony's mind - how, like, that is the only thing he kind of understands in its own timeline. So I thought that was beautiful. So I think it all adds up. I mean, I would definitely suggest you watch it again, Stephen.
BLANKENSHIP: Now, I never saw "The Father" onstage, but, super nerd that I am, I did go back and read the script, and the music is not in the script of the play. So that is something that was added to expand the cinematic universe of the film, and when I clocked that that had been added, I loved it all the more because it's this perfect way of aurally indicating what he's trying to hold onto. And when beautiful opera music becomes this sign of some person's ultimate unraveling, it's so emotionally complex.
You know, I want to also go back to that idea of the unreliable narrator because I agree with you, Stephen, that it is using that construct very much. But then I keep getting stuck on moments like, for instance, what is happening in the scene where Olivia Colman's character maybe or maybe isn't strangling him? Whose perspective is that? I don't know, and I love that I don't know. And I feel like that scene somehow becomes the most important because it's so confusing to me.
THOMPSON: Yeah. I mean, I think that a recurring theme that this film is dealing with is his paranoia. And, you know, in the opening scenes of this film, he's constantly feeling that his watch is being stolen, and he's very - he's really fixed on the placement of this watch. And I think that feels like maybe a manifestation of his paranoia.
I think what you said about the opera and the use of opera music and the fact that that wasn't in the play - I do think that is a very smart addition to this movie not only to give it a more cinematic feel, but also to capture, as I'm sure - you know, Florian Zeller wrote the play from personal experience. I'm sure he understands how much music can come into play with dementia patients and that music is often a way of unlocking memories. And I think that this movie does deploy music very usefully and very cleverly.
I will say, like, I did watch this film, and I have my antennas up every time I watch a movie that's based on a play to watch for signs of, quote-unquote, "staginess," and that sense that plays that get adapted into movies can often feel very confined, very boxed in. "Ma Rainey's Black Bottom" - kind of my one criticism of "Ma Rainey's Black Bottom" was that it still feels stagy. It feels, you know, boxed in. You can see how they adapted this from a fixed place. This movie to me, on one hand, felt very stagy, but they do use that confinement to the movie's narrative advantage.
CHOUDHURY: Yeah, I think it helps the buildup so much - you know, that constant feeling of claustrophobia and that constant feeling of things around you changing but, like, not changing in a big way. Like, small things are being moved around constantly, and you just don't trust what you're seeing.
But I think the absolute genius of the narrative is at the end because it's so tender and raw that it doesn't matter. Like, you know, at that point, it does not matter what the timeline is or, like, who was it? Whose perspective was it? Was it really his daughter? Was it really his nurse? Is he hallucinating that whole thing about his younger daughter? Like, it just doesn't matter, and I think for that to happen, everything that comes before that last scene had to take everything to that heightened claustrophobia/confusion/paranoia so that, you know, when the end happens, it's a complete unraveling.
BLANKENSHIP: Can I get two amens because I agree so completely?
THOMPSON: You can have mine.
BLANKENSHIP: OK, great. I will take your amen. Thank you. I agree with you, Bedatri, so much because if the movie didn't end with that emotional honesty, it might feel like everything else was a structural gimmick.
BLANKENSHIP: But because all of that structural play leads us to this raw, like you said, unvarnished release of emotion, then it becomes this thing where all of the stuff that happened before, in a way, is immaterial because underneath all of our attempts to make sense of an incomprehensible life, there is hopefully a moment of love and care that can make it all make sense in a deeper way. And the structure of this movie, I think, gets to that so powerfully, and I agree with you, Bedatri, that Olivia Williams is so, so powerful in that last scene.
CHOUDHURY: Yeah. And, like, she gets such little screen time, but you remember her after, like, you know, the film is done. Another thing I wanted to add that Zeller adds in the film is A, names the character Anthony, and also, when the character says his birth date, that's actually Anthony Hopkins' birth date, so it's...
CHOUDHURY: Yeah, so it's also - and I read this interview where he wanted Hopkins to negotiate his own relationship with mortality. And I think that comes out so beautifully in Anthony Hopkins' performance.
THOMPSON: To me, watching Anthony Hopkins here - you really see him drawing on, like, so many pieces of his acting toolkit over the course of his career. There are points at which he's laying on charm. There are points in which you see bits of intensity, you see temper, you see his erudition, you know? You just see all these different sides of his acting toolkit. Obviously, you like it. What did you guys think of his performance?
BLANKENSHIP: I was thinking about this in terms of the Oscars as well because so often, there are older actors who get nominations for performances, and it feels like they've been nominated for their body of work, as opposed to this particular film - Robert Duvall in "The Judge," for instance, being a great example 'cause that movie's not good and neither is that performance. But Robert Duvall is good - Nick Nolte in "Warrior," also.
But here, this performance, I felt like, absolutely merited the consideration it received as an individual performance because of the things you just said. He feels so alive. There's a joy in his performance that I was so excited by, and there are so many tiny moments in the performance that I enjoyed, like when he thinks that he's accidentally told his son-in-law that his daughter is having an affair, and he's like, oops. It's so cute.
CHOUDHURY: Yeah, and, I mean, like, in all honesty, I mean, I think I was in my 20s the first time I could sit through all of "Silence Of The Lambs," so that is Anthony Hopkins for me. I mean, we've seen him take so much control of any script. I'm talking - even, like, if you look at "Two Popes," his last performance. So to see him this lost and completely vulnerable was really emotional, and I think he does that so beautifully.
And, like, you know, you cannot talk about the performances of this film without talking about Olivia Colman - I mean, literally the queen. But again, like, you know, in most of her performances, she's so, like, loud, outgoing. Like, she never stops talking. But, like, this film, she's so quiet. Like, you know, it's just so much of quiet grieving and quiet understanding of the situation, quiet comprehension/incomprehension at the same time of the situation, so I think that is so beautiful.
And there is this bit where Anthony is finding it so hard to put on a sweater. And this is a scene all of us who have seen, like, aging grandparents, aging parents, or aging anyone - this is a scene that, like, breaks us. And then Anne comes and helps him with the sweater, and after this whole film where they have bickered or, like, they've always had this, like, love-hate, bittersweet thing going, he says...
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ANTHONY HOPKINS: (As Anthony) Anne.
OLIVIA COLMAN: (As Anne) What?
HOPKINS: (As Anthony) Thank you for everything.
CHOUDHURY: And as much as that broke me, then Anne doesn't say welcome. She doesn't go in for a hug. Nothing. She just, like, stands there quietly and smiles. Oh, my God. I think I watched that film again just for that scene.
BLANKENSHIP: I'm crying just hearing you talk about that scene because she has this thing in this movie where she smiles, and you can tell that she's smiling for Anthony, but inside, she's as sad as she's ever been. And it takes a magical actor to communicate that many conflicting emotions simultaneously, and she's just the best.
CHOUDHURY: Especially when you have that husband, Mark.
BLANKENSHIP: Yes. Oh, my gosh. We haven't even...
BLANKENSHIP: And the way that she navigates that big jerk who's at her dinner table and her father - I also feel so much sympathy because I have in my own life seen members of my family be responsible for taking care of an older family member and trying to navigate the resentment of other people who get less attention because of the care that is needed. And I just felt like, yes, Olivia, I understand.
THOMPSON: Well, dementia is a really difficult subject to properly capture in film with any kind of subtlety or sensitivity. I think this is an area in which the three of us agree that this film really gets it right. I think that a lot of thought and care has been put into dialing back at the right points and not taking this portrayal over the top.
CHOUDHURY: You know, I think the basic difference is what you are left feeling for the character living with dementia. And you never feel pity for Anthony's character, and I think that is the big win here - that, you know, it's empathy and not sympathy, and empathy and not pity. It's a very important part of the storytelling that it never gets into that sappy territory where you are, like, always, like, crying. Of course, like, I cried, and I'm sure Mark cried through the film, but...
BLANKENSHIP: I've been crying today.
CHOUDHURY: But it doesn't get, like, that heightened melodramatic, or on the other hand, like, you know, you've seen portrayals of dementia with, like, things being thrown around. It's none of that dramatics, so I think that really captures the muted, slow pace of dementia in general.
THOMPSON: Well, you know, you guys have made me like this movie a little bit more.
CHOUDHURY: Yes. Yes.
THOMPSON: You know what I'm glad about - is I'm glad that I have not successfully made you like it a little bit less. That's what I was afraid of (laughter).
Well, we want to know what you think of "The Father." Find us at facebook.com/pchh and on Twitter at @pchh. That brings us to the end of our show. Thanks so much to you both for being here.
CHOUDHURY: Thank you for having me.
BLANKENSHIP: What a pleasure, truly.
THOMPSON: And, of course, thank you for listening to POP CULTURE HAPPY HOUR from NPR. If you have a second and you're so inclined, please subscribe to our newsletter at npr.org/popculturenewsletter. We'll see you all tomorrow, when we'll be talking about Chadwick Boseman's essential performances.
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