Here's the thing about great acting: It can illuminate the world and lift your spirits even when the subject matter is cloaked in darkness. "The Father," now in theaters just in time to stake a claim on this year's Academy Awards, allows us to watch Anthony Hopkins deliver a master class in acting as a once-brilliant man losing his mental faculties to the plague of dementia.
Delicate business is being transacted in "The Father" as its lead character, Anthony, bears harrowing witness to his own desperate fight to hold onto the memories that define him. Deep bows are due to Hopkins, 83, for a career-crowning performance that makes "The Father" one of the year's best and most unmissable films. That what we see is as humane as it is horrific must also be credited to French author Florian Zeller, 41, who adapted his hit 2014 play and also directed in a superb film debut that assures each jolt and nuance will land the way he planned.
Dementia is a familiar catalyst on film, from "Amour" and "Still Alice" to the more recent "Falling" and "Supernova," but "The Father" is the first to sweep us inside the seesawing trauma of a mind coming unglued. Hopkins finds notes of dark comedy in the way Anthony tries to fake lucidity. But as his anger intensifies and his rage slips into a fog of mixed signals, the film moves into a tragic realm well known to those with similarly afflicted loved ones.
Zeller allows us a few early moments to share Anthony's precarious sense of balance. He's living in a posh London flat being fussed over by his caretaker daughter, Anne (Olivia Colman), who suddenly announces she'll be moving to Paris. Feeling betrayed, the father lashes out. In the next scene, he flirts with a young nurse, Laura (Imogen Poots), by dancing in his pajamas. "He's charming," Laura gushes. "Yeah," Anne says, "not always."
And so the script, which Zeller wrote with Christopher Hampton, divides into two points of view. The reliably brilliant Colman, with an Oscar for "The Favourite" and an Emmy for "The Crown," uses her natural warmth, humor and, yes, sanity to show the sheer act of will it takes for Anne to press her father to see things as they are instead of the jumble in his head.
It's in visualizing the jumble that the screen version of "The Father" raises the artistic bar on its stage productions. The camera, set design and furnishings subtly shift to show Anthony losing his bearings, not knowing which location he is in from scene to scene. The disorienting effect continues when the father sees another woman (Olivia Williams) claiming to be his daughter and two men (Mark Gatiss and Rufus Sewell) alternating as her husband, both determined to rid Anthony from their lives.
Of course, everything pivots on Hopkins, who is playing a modern version of the mad, daughter-bedeviled King Lear, culminating in a breakdown scene that ranks with film acting at its peak. Zeller said he had Hopkins in mind when he wrote "The Father." It's not hard to see why. The match of actor and role is destined for screen immortality. Roaring against the dying of the light, Hopkins is monumental. He makes "The Father" essential viewing.