Next week in this space there will be a full slate of Oscar predictions, but allow me if you will a single spoiler: Chadwick Boseman is going to win a posthumous Best Actor award for his electrifying performance in “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom.” Boseman will be only the third actor to win an award after their death, following Peter Finch in “Network” and Heath Ledger in “The Dark Knight.” His award this year will be more of a celebration of the actor’s career and his place in Hollywood as a Black icon, and less of a commemoration of this particular performance. That’s not a critique of the process. Rarely does the best performance actually win, and other factors – specifically, how well-liked an actor is in Hollywood – almost always play a role. Boseman’s performance, career, and public persona has meant a great deal to a great many people.
I was a huge fan of Boseman’s work, but if I had a vote, I’d have a hard time selecting anyone but Anthony Hopkins for his role in “The Father.” Already an Oscar-winner for his iconic turn as Hannibal Lecter in “Silence of the Lambs,” Hopkins is absolutely devastating in “The Father,” and his work is fundamental to the film’s success. “The Father,” adapted by first-time director Florian Zeller from his own play, chronicles an unspecified period of time in the life of Anthony, a London man careening towards the late stages of dementia. His life is an endless maze, or a hall of mirrors in which time seems to move in two directions at once and fold back in on itself. Certain characters are played by different actors with no explanation. The decor in Anthony’s flat keeps changing. Scenes end in the same spot they began. Anthony keeps losing his watch, an obvious metaphor that nonetheless rings of truth.
It’s an auspicious debut for Zeller, who expertly manipulates time and space, keeping the viewer just confused enough to feel like we’re in Anthony’s shoes without ever losing our interest. Still, it’s Hopkins’s performance that holds it all together. It’s a complete portrayal of a man in the process of losing his identity. We see him at every stage. When a new home aide (Imogen Poots) comes for an interview, he puts on a show for her, literally tap-dancing for her benefit and giving us a glimpse of the vibrant young man he once was. Later, that man is gone completely, and Hopkins, now lost to his dementia, is reduced to a puddle of fear and confusion. In one scene, you will see him literally transform into a child – without the aid of Oscar-worthy make-up or special effects.
But it’s in between that Hopkins shines the brightest. Concerned that his daughter (Olivia Colman) will put him in a care center, he holds back his confusion from his family. He pretends he’s fine, even as his universe crumbles around him. His fear of losing himself is so terrifying that he thinks, if he can only hide it from others, perhaps it won’t happen after all. To accomplish this, Hopkins pulls off one of the most complex challenges of acting, keeping his feelings hidden from the other characters in the film, while still revealing them to us.
It’s a skill he has employed before, most notably in this incredible moment from 1993’s “The Remains of the Day,” which to my mind represents the best acting of Hopkins’s career. There he uses stillness to focus the viewer on the emotion behind his eyes. In “The Father,” he keeps us on his toes, using a series of pauses, blinks, and reassuring smiles to orient and reorient the viewer. To show us what Anthony wants us to see, as well as what he doesn’t. It’s a sleight of hand performed by an expert craftsman, a magic trick worthy of Oscar gold in this or any year.