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Olivia Colman as Anne and Anthony Hopkins as Anthony in Florian Zeller's The Father.SEAN GLEASON/Courtesy of Elevation Pictures

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  • The Father
  • Directed by Florian Zeller
  • Written by Christopher Hampton and Florian Zeller
  • Starring Anthony Hopkins and Olivia Colman
  • Classification PG; 97 minutes

CRITIC’S PICK

With the conviction of the paranoid, an old man accuses his daughter: “I don’t know what she’s cooking up against me, but she’s cooking something up.” And the well-meaning adult child, hurt and frustrated by a demented parent, can only wipe away a tear. There are loud echoes of the mad Lear and the wrongfully shunned Cordelia in Florian Zeller’s film The Father, with Anthony Hopkins’ affecting performance raising a contemporary story to the heights of Shakespearean tragedy.

But that is just the icing on the cake in this psychological thriller about an old man, also named Anthony, losing his independence to dementia. The foundation beneath Hopkins’ performance is Zeller’s wickedly inventive approach to narrative, casting and even the film’s set design as the French dramatist adapts his own award-winning 2012 play for the screen. With a shifting timeline and competing versions of both events and characters, Zeller reproduces his protagonist’s confusion in his audience.

The 80-year-old Anthony lives alone in a well-appointed London flat. He insists he can manage on his own but his long-divorced daughter Anne (Olivia Colman) is trying to hire a young caregiver for him before she moves away to Paris to seize a chance at mid-life love.

“No Dad, why do you keep going on about Paris?” asks Colman’s touchingly pained Anne, who has welcomed her father into her own home despite the presence of her increasingly resentful husband. Colman’s performance is also superb, expressing the depths of Anne’s love, need and hurt with a faint hint of childhood’s pouting airs.

Occasionally you get glimpses of the little girl devoted to her “little Daddy.” (That’s an unfortunately direct translation of a French endearment, and one of the rare slips in a sharp screenplay that Zeller worked on with the British dramatist Christopher Hampton.) And occasionally you lose sight of Anne altogether: Cast changes complicate the muddled story further as different actors take over key roles. The brilliant Zeller gaslights his own audience just as life is gaslighting Anthony.

The Father is a familiar and universal story.Elevation Pictures

Besides Shakespeare, there are many large theatrical precedents for this script. The non-sequiturs that the cast changes and narrative shifts produce are almost comic, recalling the absurdism of Eugène Ionesco’s scripts, while Harold Pinter also observed the way in which family members can use conflicting stories or different memories as weapons against each other. And Broadway playwright Sharr White used a similarly unreliable protagonist in The Other Place in 2011, letting the character’s delusions gradually dawn on the audience.

Perhaps it is not surprising that The Father may remind you of other powerful plays. Zeller is a playwright and theatre director – this is his first film – and indeed, this film does suffer some of that narrowness that so often troubles plays adapted for the screen. A visit to a doctor’s office is one of very few scenes that takes place outside Anthony’s domestic setting, and it feels a bit extraneous.

Yet there are also films that use that use such limits to great effect: In 2012, Michael Haneke’s Amour similarly captured the claustrophobia of old age trapped in a genteel apartment and what Zeller does with his tight setting is equally poignant. The flat is a picture of restrained design (Peter Francis is the production designer; Cathy Featherstone did the set decoration) that suggests upper middle-class wealth and the well-ordered life Anthony is losing, but it also gradually changes. It would probably take multiple viewings to recognize when his space becomes his daughter’s place or the room in a care home; the set design is superbly well integrated into the shifting story.

Yes, The Father is a familiar story and a universal one. Yet Zeller has been uniquely inventive in the way he evokes the unreliability of memory and the subjectivity of experience in the senile – and the healthy. The audience never does learn the whole story in a film that is both mind-bending and heart-rending.

The Father opens in select Canadian theatres, dependent on local health restrictions, March 19; it will be available on-demand, including Apple TV/iTunes and Google Play, starting March 26

In the interest of consistency across all critics’ reviews, The Globe has eliminated its star-rating system in film and theatre to align with coverage of music, books, visual arts and dance. Instead, works of excellence will be noted with a Critic’s Pick designation across all coverage.

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