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The Father captures dementia’s power to change reality

Dr Louisa Smith, a researcher working with people living with dementia, reflects on how the film The Father offers an opportunity for viewers to step into the shoes of a person with dementia in a real and authentic way

There is something poignant and startling about Anthony Hopkins being the father who has dementia in this film. His long and stellar career mean that Hopkins has been a constant presence in my life; I feel like I have watched him age on screen, from Silence of the Lambs to The Two Popes. And now, the fact his character is also called Anthony makes everything in this film seem more intimate and real.

Based on the award winning play of the same name, The Father seems at first a regular family drama, familiar to anyone who has experience with dementia. Anne (Olivia Colman) is struggling to support her father, Anthony (Anthony Hopkins), to stay living in his apartment. Anthony refuses to have a carer to look after him: “I don’t need anyone”, “I can manage on my own,” he says. Anne wants to move to Paris, but is worried about leaving her father alone.

Anthony Hopkins plays Anthony in The Father. Photos courtesy NIXCo

However, after a few scenes, you realise that this film is not going to go the way you expect, as Anthony’s experiences of the world become our own. The Father feels at times like a thriller and at others like a dystopian horror film.

There are clues from the beginning that we are in Anthony’s head. The film opens with the camera following Anne walking, determined and disappointed, through London’s streets (one of the few exterior scenes in the entire film). But it is the music that really captures your attention. It is the haunting counter tenor of Henry Purcell’s Cold Song. Cold Song is a lament: The Spirit of the Cold has been brought back from the dead, wishing he could go back there again. He sings, “What Power art thou/who from below/Hast made me rise/Unwilling and slow…I can scarcely move/Or draw my breath…Let me, let me/Let me freeze again…/Freeze again to death”.

It is not until minutes into the film that we see Anthony wearing headphones, and we realise that the music is his choice (his lament?) and that we have been in his head all this time. The lyrics of the song are unrecognisable, but knowing them it’s hard not to recognise that the ‘Power’ mentioned in the song is dementia. And indeed it is on the power of dementia that this film turns: its power to change reality, make new realities and alter time.

Olivia Colman and Anthony Hopkins as Anne and Anthony

In one scene, Anthony is talking to his daughter, Anne, about her moving to Paris to be with her boyfriend. In the next scene, Anthony finds an unknown man in his living room, who claims to be Anne’s husband (Paul, played by Rufus Sewell). Anthony can’t remember him, or his name. The husband calls Anne and when she returns she is a different Anne (played by Olivia Williams).

As scenes like this accumulate, where people and details change, we, as the audience don’t know which story is ‘true’. Is Anne going to Paris? Is she married? Who is she married to? Did they really just hurt Anthony? As our own questions and confusions mount, the characters have their own mundane and repeated questions which anchor the film in the everyday realities of dementia. Anthony repeatedly loses his watch, which is very important to him, and continually asks where it is or who stole it. Others are always asking Anthony, “Have you taken your medication?” and inserting the question, “You remember?” at the end of each statement.

The apartments in the film become characters in their own right. Anthony is still living in his own apartment and we see him navigate the kitchen with a body memory around routines. Stills of the rooms in the apartment show the life and memory of each object.

If there is one thing that doesn’t ring true for me about the film, it’s that Anthony does not realise he has left his own apartment and believes his daughter’s apartment is his own. But then again, we never know whether this is real or an illusion anyway. Indeed, one of the last times we see his apartment is in one of Anthony’s dreams, a still shot of the apartment empty, no books or pictures, just white walls and empty shelves. Anthony’s cold song, perhaps.

For all its cleverness in terms of offering up Anthony’s perspective, it is how this perspective is set alongside scenes of intimacy that makes the film most meaningful: when we see Anthony alone in his apartment, dressed immaculately, humming and listening to music; when we see him touch his daughter’s face and ask, perplexed, “Why do you keep looking at me like something’s wrong?”; or the incredible cruelty of moments when all inhibition disappears, and Anthony speaks hurtful half-truths. There are also glimpses of the joys of dementia too, when Anthony recalls that he was a dancer, or in the circus, and performs.

As a researcher in disability who works with people with dementia, I am always seeking ways to encourage my moral and care imagination: ways to foster empathy and help me imagine the perspective of someone with dementia. The Father provides an opportunity to step into the shoes of a person with dementia in a real and authentic way. Watching the film, I found myself doubting my own sense of reality, and being confronted with the feeling of not being certain of who was who, or what was what.

The Father (rated M) was released in April 2021 and is screening in selected cinemas around Australia.

Imogen Poots (far left, as Laura, Anthony’s other daughter), Olivia Colman as Anne and Anthony Hopkins as Anthony, in a scene from The Father

Dr Louisa Smith is a Research Fellow at the University of Wollongong (UOW), Australian Health Services Research Institute (AHSRI), and Australian Journal of Dementia Care Co-Editor

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