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Make the Case: Anthony Hopkins for Best Actor

In Florian Zeller’s elegiac ‘The Father,’ Hopkins gives one of the strongest performances in his storied career, playing a character grappling with his own mortality

Netflix/Ringer Illustration

In The Father, Anthony Hopkins plays Anthony, a man who’s trying to figure out how his life fits together. He’s become the missing piece in his own private jigsaw puzzle. Stalking around his spacious flat in London, the 80-something widower tells anybody who’ll listen—mostly his adult daughter, Anne (Olivia Colman), who drops in and out on regular visits that test her nerves—that he’s fine, and that his mind is like a steel trap. But there’s rust around the edges.

Anthony forgets names and dates and loses track of time; he hides valuables in a secret spot and later thinks that they’ve been lost or stolen; he’s plagued by hallucinations of strangers and loved ones, living and dead. The word “dementia” is never spoken aloud, but it hangs there in the apartment like a ghost. “I can look after myself,” Anthony insists. It’s as if he’s trying to convince himself. Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn’t. The surest sign that Anthony is terrified is that he’s putting on such a brave face.

Florian Zeller’s film adaptation of his award-winning 2014 play, Le Père, represents a noble attempt to transform and transcend the material’s theatrical roots. It mostly succeeds. The staginess of the original script (coadapted and translated into English by Christopher Hampton) is extremely deliberate, because Anthony (called Andre in the French version) finds himself unexpectedly in a position where he is forced to perform. He’s impersonating a well-functioning version of himself, and scrutinizing his audience for responses. For his film-directorial debut, Zeller has employed a shooting style that draws out the play’s themes of psychological dislocation. “I wanted to play with broken memory by constantly changing the space,” he told Forbes. Watch carefully, and the layout and architecture of Anthony’s flat keeps changing around him, from scene to scene and sometimes even shot to shot. (Once you catch the trick, you never stop looking for it.) With its slow, steady tracking shots and labyrinthine single-location set—all long corridors and doors hanging ominously ajar—The Father plays with the language of horror films. Like Michael Haneke’s 2012 Palme d’Or winner, Amour, its scariness is directly proportional to its relatability.

What really elevates The Father and cinches its subtexts of psychic and emotional fragility are the performances of Hopkins and Colman, who are both deservedly Oscar-nominated but unlikely to win owing to past triumphs. (Hopkins, who at 83 is the oldest Best Actor nominee ever, also copped a BAFTA over the weekend.) Colman earned her statuette in 2019 for playing another, more imperious Anne—the 18th-century monarch made infamous by multiple stillbirths and miscarriages—in Yorgos Lanthimos’s The Favourite. She was great in that role (and gave the decade’s best acceptance speech after upsetting Glenn Close) but her work here is subtler and more rewarding. Zeller and Hampton’s choice to open up the script and give Anne more scenes—instead of simply being seen from her father’s compromised perspective—yields a fine, sympathetic portrait of love tested. At this point it seems that Colman can do anything; she’s never had a false moment as an actress.

Hopkins, meanwhile, was feted three decades ago for The Silence of the Lambs, a choice that was at once inevitable (as evidenced by a truly enthusiastic standing ovation) and felt a bit like category fraud considering that Hannibal Lecter has only about 20 minutes of screen time.

A little lip-smacking goes a long way, of course, and The Silence of the Lambs was not only a landmark in the history of the serial killer movie but also a turning point in the career of a great stage actor who had to that point been a bit of a cinematic underachiever. In his autobiography, Confessions of an Actor, no less than Sir Laurence Olivier recalls watching a 29-year-old Hopkins perform as his understudy in a 1967 production of August Strindberg’s The Dance of Death and marveling at the technique of the potential Next Big Thing. (“He walked away with [the part] like a cat with a mouse between his teeth.”) By the mid-1970s, Hopkins was being touted as the heir to his fellow Welshman Richard Burton, whose commanding stage presence had translated into big-screen stardom and celebrity. The sky was the limit: After directing Hopkins in 1977’s A Bridge Too Far, Richard Attenborough called him “the best actor of his generation.”

Hopkins made movies regularly in the 1980s in the U.S. and the UK and continued setting a high standard on the stage. But with the exception of his deeply humane turn as Dr. Frederick Treves in The Elephant Man—a role defined by a series of astonishing, empathetic reaction shots in the presence of the disfigured title character—none of his featured film roles were particularly iconic. In The Bounty, as the mad Captain Bligh (a part originally played to perfection by Charles Laughton) he acted the young Mel Gibson to a draw; elsewhere, memorable roles were hard to come by.

Hopkins was, at best, a long shot for the part of Dr. Lecter, which was earmarked for Gene Hackman. He ended up being the beneficiary of Jonathan Demme’s brilliantly counterintuitive casting instincts. In a recent interview with Vanity Fair, Hopkins revealed that Demme told him he wanted him for The Silence of the Lambs based on his work in The Elephant Man. “I said, ‘Why would that resonate with you?’” Hopkins recalled. “[Demme] said, ‘Well, because Treves is a really good man.’ And I said, ‘OK. Well, what about Hannibal Lecter?’ He said, ‘I think he’s a good man, he’s a very bright man. He’s trapped in an insane brain.’”

With Lecter, insanity is a state of grace, and in Hopkins’s best performances—The Father included—you get the sense of an extreme intelligence rattling around behind those sapphire-blue eyes. Even when Hopkins’s characters aren’t explicitly cerebral (or sociopathic), they’re always thinking. With his sharp, crystalline diction, he’s ideally cast as orators, as in Steven Spielberg’s 19th-century drama Amistad, in which he inhabited the eloquent anti-slavery rhetoric of ex-president John Quincy Adams (and put the movie over the top with a quietly blistering speech about “the natural state of mankind”). The Silence of the Lambs raised Hopkins’s profile to the point that he was everywhere in the 1990s, emerging as the stoic, soulful center in a series of prestige pictures and even becoming the art-house version of a box-office draw. As a straitlaced butler in the Merchant Ivory hit The Remains of the Day, Hopkins succeeded in burying his character’s feelings so deeply beneath a fastidious exterior of servitude that any flashes of emotion registered as a seismic event: It’s the the kind of acting that draws the camera toward it and gives microscopic subtlety a good name.

More spectacularly, Hopkins impersonated Richard Nixon for Oliver Stone with a richly Shakespearean intensity, evoking Richard III in the White House, or maybe King Lear; throwing subtlety to the wind, he turned the apparent miscasting of a Brit as the most malevolent American president of the 20th century into a masterstroke. His Nixon is never comfortable in his own snaky skin. Elsewhere, Hopkins masticated David Mamet’s razor-blade dialogue in The Edge (and also killed a Grizzly Bear while he was at it); classed up several franchise blockbusters (The Mask of Zorro, Mission: Impossible 2, and, much later on, Thor) and cashed in nicely on the Lecter legacy, vamping it up in Hannibal and Red Dragon like the lead singer of an arena-rock band on a reunion tour. (Whether it was fun or depressing to see Hopkins playing the hits was what the Good Doctor might call a matter of taste.)

Like his fellow master thespian Michael Caine—with whom he costarred in A Bridge Too Far—Hopkins evidently likes to work more than he cares about the work itself. His quality-control filter malfunctions more than most other actors of his stature. What’s exciting about The Father is the opportunity to see an actor with a dizzyingly high ceiling being forced by a well-written role to raise his game, and watching him reconfigure his trademark precision into a fugue of confusion. Early in the film, Anthony hears the door open and is confronted by a woman claiming to be Anne but who’s played by a different actress (Olivia Williams), and his effort to take this non sequitur in stride—to make it seem like his bewilderment is something that’s being done to him instead of a trick of his own fragmenting consciousness—is palpable.

These casting switches continue throughout the movie, and all the trickery would feel like a gimmick if not for Hopkins’s gravitas in the midst of it. Because Zeller insists on keeping his story in the present tense, never quite differentiating between memories, visions, and real events, we don’t really know much about Anthony, and Hopkins fills in the blanks with his physicality and behavior. We get the impression that Anthony hasn’t necessarily been changed by his condition, but that aspects of his personality have been heightened and crystalized: This is a man capable of great charm and cruelty, suddenly unable to choose and move between them. A scene when Anthony first dotes on and then attacks a potential caregiver played by Imogen Poots is devastating, unfolding as a series of agonizing, frozen smiles, pity mingled with humiliation.

And then there is the movie’s finale, which may be the single most impressive acting of Hopkins’s career, non-cannibal division. Here, everything that Anthony recognizes about his life gets stripped from him—all at once, and yet, as we come to understand, not for the first time. What’s left is at once blisteringly specific and hauntingly universal: a desire to be loved, to be comforted, to be told everything will be OK. To be lied to. Somehow, Hopkins turns the theme of memory back on the audience: He makes us forget who we’re watching.