The Father is the most miraculous kind of film adaptation of a theater piece: one that's almost impossible to imagine being staged live. In principle, sure, one can ponder how this exact screenplay might be fitted into a theatrical space, and how it could use stagecraft to get at the same sense of slithery, unstable reality it gets at in cinematic form; but as it stands, the film relies so much, and so successfully, on camera angles and editing to create a blurry mixture of different moments in a never-ending, terribly confusing present, it's hard to think of it in any other form. More surprising still: this is the first film directed by Florian Zeller, who also wrote the 2012 play Le Père, upon which the film is based (but not the screenplay; in the interests of having a native speaker of English handle the translation, that honor fell to Christopher Hampton), all of which suggests a safe and tidy transfer from stage to screen at best, a claustrophobic and self-indulgent one at worst. Instead, we get one of the only films of the deeply misbegotten 2020 Oscarbait season that's actually doing anything, literally anything creative as a work of cinema. And if this means what I run the risk of  overvaluing it, oh well.

Part of the pleasure of The Father lies in how much it explains itself to you through implication as you're watching, so part of me feels like it's not sporting to say anything at all about the plot, but there's not really anything we can do if I don't, so: an elderly man (Anthony Hopkins) has dementia. He is far enough along in the development of the disease that it's basically entirely eradicated his short-term memory, so every new moment is basically starting from scratch, free of any context of where we are or what's going on or who is present. In the very early going, this is presented in the form of fairly banal prestige movie realism, in a sequence that emphasises the austere classiness of the man's home, and the brusque, clipped qualities of Hopkins's performance, and does it with the only dialogue in the film that still feels notably "theatrical", in its pointed opacity and aggressive naturalism. Indeed, for this opening sequence, I was ready to write The Father off entirely, except that it's not too long before the bottom falls right out of the movie, and all the banality is revealed to be just the baseline for us to begin the process of dealing the rest of the movie, which is an honest-to-God mindfuck. I can't even think of the last time an Oscarbait film was also a mindfuck.

For, as we'll figure out soon enough, The Father is entirely subjective, every last scene of it: we move through the movie along exactly the same path as the old man himself, and we get absolutely no clarification on what the hell is going on. The most direct way to explain the film's game: its 97 minutes are presented in something almost exactly like real time (there is, that I caught, only one break in the flow of time), but they also cover at least weeks and probably months, and also multiple locations (there's also a good possibility that they don't occur in chronological order). It's an attempt to place us inside the man's deteriorating mind, where the days separating two events have simply been lost, so there's no apparent gap in time longer than a blink, but to do so through what appears to be a very objective portrayal of single hour and a half in his life. The only film I can think of offhand doing anything even close to this is Memento from 2000, which first off, isn't complicating things with the apparent real-time gimmick, and second off, is presenting a movie disease in the context of a thriller. The Father is presenting an actual disease that a great many of us will have to witness in our familes (or even, God forbid, our own brains), and doing it in the context of an otherwise sedate domestic drama. So yes, I am in fact saying that both structurally and thematically, The Father is better than Memento, with the caveat that I don't actually consider that to be nearly as high a bar to clear as a lot of people do.

Regardless, we have here a simply remarkable, one-of-a-kind experiment in creating sympathy for a person with dementia, and of course Zeller doesn't know more than I do or anybody does  who hasn't had it what the first-person experience of that would actually be like. But The Father presents a superbly convincing simulation. The steady flow of time mixes beautifully with the editing, in which Zeller and Yorgos Lamprinos keep shifting the pattern slightly around so that sometimes cuts correspond to shifts in time, and sometimes that happens in-camera, as the old man walks from room to room, which helpfully makes the film endlessly unpredictable even after we know exactly what it's "doing". So it always remains slightly nerve-wracking, especially since it refuses to give us enough external knowledge to know more than the old man does. The best we can do is that, unlike him, we know this is a movie, and so we know that we're hunting for clues to assemble a coherent narrative, while he seems to be literally resetting with every new scene. The result is something awfully close to a thriller, or even an incredibly sedate, intimate horror film, assuming you join me in feeling like the loss of memory to the ravages of old age is among the most horrifying things one could plausibly experience in the course of an average life.

And that sense of horror is compounded by the film's physical instability, as the lighting and layout of rooms and identity of the rest of the cast keeps fluctuating. The reason this is called The Father is that there's a daughter, and she seems to generally be played by Olivia Colman; but there are moments when she seems to instead be played by Olivia Williams. But it's also possible that Williams is playing a different character altogether, and that maybe she's playing the same character as Imogen Poots. Or maybe there is no Olivia Williams character, and she's just the face the father maps onto whatever woman he can't immediately pin down. I'm being a little bit deliberately obscure because I do not want to ruin the very wonderful process of trying to fit all of these puzzle pieces in with each other that is, after all, the main thing we're meant to do with The Father, but also because obscurity is the point: I genuinely don't know who Williams is playing much of the time because neither does the old man, and she's making sure to keep her acting just neutral and clinical enough to not give it away.

The acting is, across the board, one of the film's triumphs. Colman (who, I think it's fair to say, is never not playing the daughter, as far as I can tell) is only ever playing a character we get as a series of second hand impressions, but she's put such care into how she's approaching that challenge that there's a thread running throughout the entire movie that's all about the frustrations and sorrow and terror and resignation of being the adult child of a parent suffering from dementia. She's the protagonist of the film that The Father very deliberately isn't, but she's a damn good protagonist, banishing all of the irony and humor that are her hallmarks as a screen presence and creating something tough and humane and heartbreaking in its place. Nobody else in the supporting cast has quite the same degree of difficulty, though I'm not really any less impressed by Williams's slipperiness in playing a character we can't quite pin down, through absolutely no fault of her own.

But the star of the show is of course Hopkins, who hasn't been this good in literally decades (we have to get as far back as The Remains of the Day in 1993 before hitting a performance I'd even contemplate calling better than the one he gives here). It basically has to be two complete performances throughout the entire film: he's our solitary perspective on virtually the entire film, save for a single scene, and we are limited to what he perceives, but we also know more than he does. So Hopkins must, in every single beat of the film, play both a man who is losing his definition as an individual personality, and the series of defensive mechanisms that man is putting out to convince everybody else that he's fine. It's a role that couldn't be more finely-tuned towards Hopkins's bad habits as an actor, which typically involve campy showboating and  self-satisfied "bigness"; here, instead of feeling like he's being overbearing, these gestures feel like the father's own performance, an attempt to fake a large, garrulous, dignified personality in the absence of any solid central core. It's perfect work, tetchy and hostile while also being scared and confused, and as the film goes on, it all gets softer and sadder.

It's not just about the acting: Zeller does excellent work in staging the rooms of the father's apartment as isolated boxes, reinforcing the feeling that we're watching little dioramas carved out of time, while also keeping us locked into the mode of stuffy British prestige drama that the father obviously wishes to pretend that he's living in, even as the film around him keeps disintegrating into confused moments and uncomfortable fluidity between places in time and space. It's never the kind of film that wants to show off visually, but there's certainly something powerful in Peter Francis's production design and Cathy Featherstone's set decoration that allows this method of staging the film to come off, especially since we have to rely on the sets to do a lot of the explanation of who the father was when he wasn't constantly fighting to preserve his sense of stable reality. Honestly, the only thing that gets me crabby about the film at all is that it'd persistently overlit, and somewhat ugly as a result; otherwise, this is a genuinely challenging, creative approach to the kind of material that has resulted in many a piece of dismal, forgettable Oscarbait, and the sort of thing that gives year-end middlebrow prestige cinema a good name.