Streaming: The Father and other films about dementia

Florian Zeller’s heart-rending film The Father is the latest in a spate of recent works tackling the condition and its effects on the family

First shown way back at Sundance in January last year, and repeatedly delayed by the pandemic, The Father waited an awfully long time for its moment in cinemas, and when it finally arrived – buoyed up by glowing reviews and two big Oscar wins – not that many people went to see it. After a year spent largely away from cinemas, Florian Zeller’s solemn, uncompromising, ingeniously structured chamber drama about the ravages of dementia wasn’t most people’s idea of a summer night out, no matter how good Anthony Hopkins is in it. (Which is to say very, very extraordinarily so: his Oscar may have been controversially unexpected, but it was not undeserved.) “I’ll wait to watch it at home,” said a number of friends to whom I recommended the film: now, on Amazon and the like, they can.

But I don’t think it was just the film’s seriousness that made people shy to see it. The specific subject matter of dementia yields such strong emotions – connected, for so many of us, to painful personal experience – that we worry we won’t be able to hold it together in the public space of the cinema. (I doubt I would have: I first saw Zeller’s film at home, during one of last year’s lockdowns, and wept into my duvet for some time afterwards.) For all the advantages that the big screen has over the small, the films that place us in a vulnerable position can sometimes benefit from the privacy of streaming.

However people choose to view them, demand for films on this difficult subject is clearly there. The past year, in particular, has seen a remarkable spate of works tackling dementia and its effects on the family in a variety of ways and genres – from intimate romance to self-reflexive documentary to claustrophobic horror, most of them now available to stream. I dedicated a column last year to Kirsten Johnson’s inventive, achingly personal doc Dick Johnson Is Dead (Netflix), in which her father gamely talks us through his questions, fears and wishes for the rest of his life as he is diagnosed with Alzheimer’s. On the one hand it’s tough to witness his deterioration in frank, gradual strokes, but it’s a film bound more by familial joy and togetherness than misery.

It’s a world away from Natalie Erika James’s startling debut Relic (Shudder), a clever but emotionally bruising horror film (one of Mark Kermode’s best of 2020, and rightly so) that grafts the terror of dementia on to the tropes of a haunted-house story. As an elderly matriarch (a superb Robyn Nevin) succumbs to Alzheimer’s in her rambling family home, the space around shifts and shuts down with each lost fragment of memory.

Robyn Nevin in Relic.
Robyn Nevin in Relic. Photograph: Alamy

Relic is perhaps the toughest of these recent films on the particular theme of parent-child conflicts aggravated by the disease. Viggo Mortensen’s earnest, well-acted Falling (Now TV) is more conventionally melodramatic, with its story of a gay man attempting to make peace with his homophobic father before dementia claims the latter, though it’s still moving. The father-daughter bond between Javier Bardem and Elle Fanning, meanwhile, drives Sally Potter’s The Roads Not Taken (Now TV), which is dizzy and impressionistic in its portrayal of dementia through the eyes and mind of the affected party – though it pulls some emotional punches.

Julie Christie and Gordon Pinsent in Away from Her.
Julie Christie and Gordon Pinsent in Away from Her. Photograph: Allstar/Lions Gate

Still, it’s interesting to see film-makers taking a richer range of stylistic approaches to a subject often handled with tender, tasteful restraint. Sarah Polley’s lovely, heart-crumbling Away from Her (Amazon) and Michael Haneke’s more austerely devastating Amour (BFI Player) remain the gold standard of that strain, though there’s also a tidiness to them that doesn’t fully reflect the internal mess and chaos wreaked by the condition. The Father, with its splintered chronology, mood swings and changeable character and environments, feels like perhaps the closest we’ve yet come on film to evoking dementia from the inside – a new way of seeing, and one I hope more people see.

Also new on streaming and DVD

A Quiet Place Part II
One of the bigger cinema hits of the summer makes its way to viewers at home, and remains a straightforward, sensation-based good time. Following very much the first film’s template, John Krasinski’s sequel polishes up its jump scares, tightens up the dynamics between the imperilled family at its centre, and delivers a monster movie that creeps and creaks in the right places. Can they keep this up for (yes) Part III?

Frighteningly good… Emily Blunt and Noah Jupe in A Quiet Place Part II.
Emily Blunt and Noah Jupe in A Quiet Place Part II. Photograph: Allstar/Paramount Pictures

Here’s a horror film, however, significantly less likely to spawn future chapters. Conceptually promising but murkily executed, this story of an estranged mother and daughter re-bonded via sinister mind-melding technology marks another round of diminishing returns from District 9 director Neill Blomkamp – who has a few nifty visual ideas here, but little storytelling verve.

For families who don’t have Disney+, Pixar’s quirky summery fantasy is now available on DVD and Blu-ray, though I’m not sure it’ll inspire quite the same inexhaustible repeat-watching devotion in children as others from the Pixar stable. There are Studio Ghibli overtones to this mellow, wholesome tale of a young, shape-shifting sea monster discovering the joys of dry land, though it’s more perky than poetic.

With Denis Villeneuve’s much-hyped new adaptation of the Frank Herbert sci-fi tome on its way, now seems as good a time as any for a Blu-ray rerelease of David Lynch’s embattled 1984 version – tricked out with extras and given a 4K restoration – so the superfans can do a close comparison. A bomb on release, the film has been more kindly appraised of late, though it remains a curate’s egg, with a blundering misstep for each moment of soaring beauty.


Guy Lodge

The GuardianTramp

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