Anthony Lane’s New Yorker review of the 2021 Academy Award winning film The Father begins: “When we first meet Anthony, he is wearing headphones and listening to music: a high and stammering plea, sung by a countertenor. It comes from Purcell’s King Arthur, and the lyrics, by John Dryden, tell a chilling tale: ‘What power art thou, who from below / Hast made me rise, unwillingly, and slow, / From beds of everlasting snow?’ There is no better guide to the plight of Anthony, upon whom the season of dementia has descended.”
The film consists largely of scenes from a diminished and diminishing family struggling to love one another. The octogenarian father and his daughter Anne are both still grieving the loss of Anne’s sister Lucy even as they must simultaneously somehow cope with the father’s descent into darkness. There is no mention of a mother. The Father’s writer/director Florian Zeller has called the film a love story, though that story remains both unresolved and refracted through the tormented consciousness of Anthony. But it is a love story nonetheless, one between Anthony (played by Anthony Hopkins) and Anne (played by both Olivia Coleman and Olivia Williams) who remains, under great duress, a dutiful Cordelia to her father’s Lear.
What Anthony Lane does not mention in his review is that Purcell’s King Arthur not only suggests what the film is about, it also, and more importantly, cues the viewer as to how to view the film. For the music, seemingly extradiegetic when first heard, turns out to be what only Anthony is hearing through the earphones he is wearing. Immediately the viewer is notified that much of his or her experience of the film is simply Anthony’s experience. We hear and see only what he hears and sees. The music comes not from outside the action of the film as part of a soundtrack but from inside Anthony’s own mind.
This exquisite work of art was designed, first as a play, then as a film, to give viewers an immediate sense of what it is like to suffer dementia.
And so it goes up until the very last scene when we at last understand Anthony’s suffering from dementia. As the film unfolds, the viewer becomes more and more disoriented. Scenes are repeated with odd variations, including different people appearing as the same character. Phrases are also repeated again and again (“They don’t speak English there”). Confusions abound. We feel bewildered, even a bit crazed. And that is the point. This exquisite work of art was designed, first as a play, then as a film, to give viewers an immediate sense of what it is like to suffer dementia.
We learn at the very end, when we at last see Anthony in a way that he does not see himself, that the whole film has been a portrayal of his jumbled memories as endured during his confinement in a memory care facility. The demented Anthony only wants “to go home.” But just where exactly is Anthony’s home, and what would it mean to go there? His home, viewers learn, has been his head this whole time, and we have lived with him in that home for what seems like many hours. And what are we to make of this?
In the world of the film, the location of Anthony’s home is as impossible to determine as the source of Purcell’s music. Through the tangle of recollection, we see the flat that once was his, and then his daughter’s flat, which he confuses with his own, and we come to realize, though he may or may not, that he spent some years living with her and her first husband before she moved to Paris with her new partner. But the configuration of the furniture in his old flat constantly changes, as do the interiors, the color schemes, and the lighting sources. There is neither constancy of space nor continuity of time, which becomes compressed and non-linear, effects that are, to both the viewers and to Anthony, quite confounding. What it means for Anthony to “go home,” requires aesthetic and spiritual considerations, not spatio-temporal ones.
What it means for Anthony to “go home,” requires aesthetic and spiritual considerations, not spatio-temporal ones.
Again, the opening scene is crucial. Anthony hears, through his earphones, the voice of the goddess that presides over the art form whose name is derived from ‘muse.’ This is but one of numerous reminders that we are viewing a work of art (two others are that Anthony’s deceased daughter Lucy was an artist and that Anthony fancies himself to have once been a dancer, even though he was an engineer). And The Father, like all works of tragic art, works its own magic upon us as we take aesthetic delight in the heartbreaking portrayal of a life of great suffering. There is no effort at all to sanitize dementia; on the contrary, we leave the film exhausted as well as full of pity and terror. And yet all along there is for us, though not for Anthony, aesthetic pleasure in these pains. Such is the transformative power of art.
The Father’s central character, his exceptionally steadfast and loving daughter Anne, and the creator of the film are all of a piece, though on different planes of reality. As Theseus puts it in A Midsummer Night’s Dream, “the lunatic, the lover, and the poet are of imagination all compact.” Theseus might well have added the mystic to these proverbial three. A mystical theologian might have observed that, just as art has the power to transform pain into aesthetic delight, a mystical apprehension of reality can transform dementia into intimations of heavenly immortality.
Theseus is no fool, nor is he a partisan of the imagination of madmen. He continues his speech about madmen, lovers, and poets by noting that the madman “sees more devils than Hell itself can hold.” And indeed, as Satan himself insists in Milton’s Paradise Lost, “the mind is its own place and, in itself can make a heaven of hell or a hell of heaven.” Dementia is something of a living hell for Anthony, and, contrary to Satan who is characteristically wrong to think that the mind can heal itself, Anthony must depend upon the Creator, not simply a creator, to heal his mind, to offer salvation, to make a heaven of the hell that could then become the home he seeks.
A mystical apprehension of reality can transform dementia into intimations of heavenly immortality.
Imagine again Anthony’s world in the film where time folds in upon itself until there is no longer time, where space dissolves and re-dissolves until there is no space, where the principle of individuation melts away and all things seem to merge into one. Then imagine that same world where a terrible beauty is born just as it emerges for viewers at the end of the film. Only delight remains. All the pain has disappeared. Perhaps that is Anthony’s home, as though he could, healed by his Creator, climb out of the film, back through the doorway of art, and be a Christian mystic viewer who knows only love perfected and all terror removed?
During the last year of his life, the Trappist mystic Thomas Merton wrote the following, comparatively rare, one-sentence entry in his journal for May 28, 1968, which says it all for Anthony and for us: “The country that is nowhere is the real home.”