“Will you be able to handle it?” my partner asked. “Yes,” I said firmly, even though I wasn’t sure if I could. It was his birthday, and we thought of marking the occasion with our favourite pastime — watching movies. I had chosen the new Anthony Hopkins film, The Father. I knew it wasn’t a happy story, and I wasn’t sure if I could stomach its premise — the world seen through the eyes of an old man suffering from dementia. Having a mother suffering from Alzheimer’s and lost an aunt to dementia, the pain of being forgotten is deeply embedded in the psyche of our family. It also did not help that The Guardian’s review of the film warned, “It’s an experience many people will understandably want to avoid, existing just too close to home for a lot of us, easily swapping Hopkins and inserting a family member in his place.” A few years ago, a scene from the Bollywood film Uri, where the protagonist’s mother (also suffering from cognitive decline) fails to recognise her son, had compelled me to walk out of the theatre. I must have progressed from that stage, I thought. After all, facing our worst fears — even if on the screen — is also a test of how far we have come in the journey of acceptance. Watching The Father, in that sense, was my way of assessing where I stood. It could either have been cathartic or a brutal reminder of the reality.
The Father begins with Hopkins’ character (Anthony) looking for his watch, as his daughter (Anne, played by Olivia Colman) comes to visit him in his flat and announces she has to move to Paris. He is convinced the watch was stolen by his last caregiver — and he’s had many — even as Anne tries to assure him that he has kept it in his hiding spot. Why does he need to hide things in his own flat? As his memory declines, he isn’t sure of where to look for things he’s kept. My mind immediately wandered to memories of my mother trying to convince me and my brother that our cook had been taking away spoons. “What will she do with the spoons, Maa?” I’d argue. She did not have an answer. A few scenes later in the film, Anthony finds a stranger at his home only to be told he is his son-in-law and Anthony has, in fact, moved to their flat. I remembered meeting my mother after nine months last year only to be asked what my name was. The Father just wouldn’t stop hitting the raw nerve. To many of us, the universe that Hopkins’ character inhabits is an unfamiliar territory, because our memories have chronology and order, but theirs are overlapping all the time. It’s difficult to penetrate into a world that’s constantly on a cognitive decline.
There are other finer nuances that The Father captures brilliantly. Every day, Anthony wakes up to a new reality. As the world around him has changed suddenly — the daughter is very much in London, and not Paris — he holds on to some semblance of familiarity (like his watch or a chicken meal) to make sense of it. The suffering is internal, and spelling out that he doesn’t quite remember when his daughter cancelled the plans or why his younger daughter (who passed away in an accident) wouldn’t come to meet him anymore will only invite inspection into his mental stability. He struggles to explain his fractured world to those who are not part of it. The disorientation and helplessness are palpable in this heart-rending performance by Hopkins, who is easily one of the greatest actors of our time. His final breakdown in the film’s climax is a reminder of what vulnerability can do to human spirit. Demolish an entire lifetime’s worth of experience into smithereens.
Grief is universal, but it is also personal. We experience it through our lens and think about what we lost as a loved one slipped into dementia. But the person at the epicentre of that suffering is constantly in a state of loss, and even language falls short of articulating that pain. The Father, to me, was a window to that world. A world where hope and despair take turns to make sense of life.
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