The Father

A Conversation with the Men behind the Fascinating New Film

In the age of sequels, prequels, spinoffs and reboots, it is almost impossible to find a truly original film, like The Father, today. Showcasing a hauntingly realistic portrayal of dementia, The Father is a film that sees the world through an aging man’s eyes. With its masterful direction, genius writing and powerhouse acting, it received rave reviews at Sundance, before debuting at the Cairo International Film Festival (CIFF) ahead of its world premiere. eniGma’s Mohamed Hesham discussed the film with its Oscar-winning screenwriter, Sir Christopher Hampton, and Emmy and Tony Award-nominated actor Rufus Sewell, who costars in the film along with stars Sir Anthony Hopkins and Olivia Coleman.

Based on his own critically acclaimed play, The Father is French writer Florian Zeller’s first venture into feature film directing and screenwriting in Hollywood. Iconic screenwriter Sir Christopher Hampton worked on the script together with Zeller, who also directed the film. As director, Zeller successfully enlisted A-list stars Sir Anthony Hopkins and Olivia Coleman, whose brilliant acting brought the play to life.

Taking the viewer on a heartbreaking trip seen through the eyes of an elderly man suffering from dementia, The Father starts out as a normal story of a regular guy, Anthony (played by Anthony Hopkins) as he interacts with his daughter, Anne (Olivia Coleman). However, a series of shocking twists and turns happen rather quickly, giving the viewer a taste of the haunting sense of confusion and disorientation that Anthony is feeling most of the time. The film is Anthony’s own distorted version of events. You feel more and more perplexed as the film develops. It is a puzzle that never fits; it cannot be solved.
The Father is a masterpiece of metaphoric sequences, with an undertone of meanings in the smallest details. Zeller’s undeniable genius is apparent throughout. The story takes place mostly in an apartment, where the furniture and the vibe keep slyly changing, hinting at the passage of time and reflecting Anthony’s unreliable perspective. Anthony believes that the apartment is his, yet there are hints that it might actually be his daughter’s apartment. As events unfold, it is not clear which are memories, which are present-day incidents and which are simply hallucinations.

Sir Christopher Hampton and Zeller’s work on the screenplay clearly involved more than simply translating the French play. Hampton’s genius was instrumental in adapting the script to fit the screen and they both worked closely on the overall flow of dialogue, making sure it was entreating, grippingly vague and downright raw.

Besides its outstanding screenplay, the film is fueled by a world-class performance by the legendary Sir Anthony Hopkins, who truly outdid himself as the lead character. Hopkins brilliantly plays the role of the confused old man who tries to make sense of it all, but keeps failing at it time and time again. We see in him a man who was once charming and humorous and who at times retrieves some of his charisma; but eventually he is outwitted by his deteriorating mental state. His intelligence only makes things harder on the people around him as well as on himself. He grows irritated by his nonstop bewilderment and lets it out mostly on his loving daughter, Anne.

Academy Award winner Olivia Coleman gives a gut-wrenching performance as the heartbroken daughter watching her father suffer and unable to help him. She tries to put on a brave face, but every now and then she is hurt by her father’s obliviously cruel remarks and harsh tantrums. You can see the pain in Anne’s eyes through Coleman’s effortless performance.

A set of topnotch actors complement Hopkins and Coleman’s amazing portrayal of their characters. One of these is Rufus Sewell, who plays the role of Paul, Anne’s unaccommodating husband, who is not happy with Anthony staying at Anne’s apartment. At times, Anthony can’t pinpoint Paul’s actual place in his life; the scenario keeps being shifted and manipulated, and Paul’s identity continuously changes in his head.

Sir Christopher Hampton

How did this collaboration with Florian Zeller come about?
I had read Florian’s other plays, and this was his fifth. When I went to see it in Paris years ago, I was really moved. I met him that evening and told him that I would like to translate it. I ended up translating it first for the stage in England. Subsequently, after deciding to adapt it for the screen, we met and talked for a long time about the general structure of the film. We discussed how we wanted to approach the script. Florian wrote the first draft in French and sent it to me. I translated it and changed it at the same time and sent it back. Then, he made a second draft in French and I did a fourth draft in English. Finally, we met in Paris for three or four days and worked again on specific details, and we had the shooting script which never changed after that.

You’ve worked with Sir Anthony Hopkins and Olivia Coleman before. How was it working with them again?
I had worked with Anthony in the 70s on Dollhouse and in the 80s on The Good Father, so this was our third time working together. I had known him quite well when he was a young actor, so we just sat around on set like old men remembering this and that. I had also worked with Olivia on a television film about five years ago called The Thirteenth Tale, so I knew her a little bit too. It was a delight working with her again.

Rufus Sewell

You’re known best for your portrayal of the “bad guy” in films. Going into this project, what was your original perception of the lead character?
In my view, you’ve got the possibility that Anthony could be conflating two different characters, that there’s someone else who’s treating him a certain way and who is getting mixed up with him in his head. There may have been thousands of days before that, when Anthony’s behaviour had been treated with understanding and sympathy. I play someone who loves his wife and is watching her being mistreated by someone for years. There are people who view themselves as good, or come off that way, while under certain circumstances they may behave in a way that is not their best. Also, what makes people behave well, is often the idea that there will be a memory of our behaviour. In my case, I’m dealing with someone who, in a few moments, will have no memory of what I’ve just done. So, there are moments of cruelty that come out. Think about this idea, with no memory, there will be no repercussions for all our bad actions. Moreover, what you’re essentially seeing in the film is what Anthony is seeing. The real flesh and blood of the story may be merely an illusion. It’s a very difficult thing, but you just have to inhabit that role with confidence.

What was it like to star opposite Sir Anthony Hopkins and Olivia Coleman?
It was very exciting for me to be able to work with Olivia, who is obviously a wonderful actress, and I had met her a couple times prior. Anthony Hopkins has actually been one of my favourite actors since I was a child. My first knowledge of acting is related to watching Hopkins, and he has always been an inspiration to me. So, working with him was very extraordinary. But the most extraordinary thing was how normal and easy it became. I think it’s just part of what we do as humans to deal with life. We just normalise what we initially feel is absurd. They are both fantastic actors, but after a day on set, it didn’t feel quite so overwhelming. The subject matter of the film itself was so rich, full and powerful, but the actual experience of filming it was very light-hearted. Then, at the end of the job, I allowed myself to be fully conscious of my part in working with them.

You’ve worked with Sir Christopher Hampton before. How was it working together again?
We worked together in the 90s on Harrington, and then again just three years ago, when I did a play called Art at the Old Vic, which he translated and was involved in. I’ve actually seen him a lot over the years. I’m very fond of him. He’s just brilliant. He’s one of our time’s greatest playwrights and screenwriters, and he’s a very nice man. If I’m anywhere in his orbit, it’s a good sign for my career, because the best work I’ve ever done has been in relation to people like him.