Anthony (Anthony Hopkins) is not well. His health and his mind are beginning to fail him. His daughter Anne (Olivia Coleman) tries to get him the care he needs ahead of her journey to start a new life in Paris, but he’s fiercely independent and hostile to help. With his grip on reality beginning to slip, Anthony’s relationship with Anne and the world around him becomes complex and terrifying.
The story unfolds mostly in a single location with a limited cast of characters and yet the narrative is an endless labyrinth of time that traps Anthony, forcing him to relive desperate moments of his life over and over again, becoming bewildered and frantic as he tries to find his way out. Repetition of sequences articulates not only the bewildering experience of memory loss but also the cyclical nature of the terrible condition for both the sufferer and his kin. This portrayal of mental decay is easily understood and devastating.
There’s a horrible sense of inevitability to this structure. The worst has happened, is happening and will always be about to happen. Anthony as a character is completely helpless as he tries to understand the cruel game his life has become. The sadness and solitude of his experience is palpable in a way that no other subjective portrayal of mental illness from the experience of an observer could be. We go along with Anthony on his journey through illness but gain insight into his pain as well as his daughter’s.
What Anthony really loses is his ability to keep a hold of people’s identities and his history with them. The twisting narrative makes it impossible to keep track of character motivations and actions. Cause and effect are thrown out, and all that’s left is a general impression of the people in his life, like an outline. This is compounded by the use of multiple actors playing the same role. A character will leave the frame and emerge as either someone else entirely, or the very same person played by a different performer. It’s a disorientating effect that beautifully demonstrates the limits to Anthony’s perceptions. This is a powerful work of empathetic storytelling.
In such an alienating narrative, the importance of performance is emphasised. Anthony Hopkins is exceptional in a role that ranks amongst his best. He’s poignantly sad, effortlessly charismatic and authentically cruel as the scene requires, switching between moods with a frightening alacrity. His final scene is nothing short of devastating. He embodies a vulnerability that is truly unforgettable. Opposite him is Olivia Coleman as his long suffering daughter, and she is superb. The long years of sorrow and anguish are evident in her restrained anger and longing. The two are incredibly natural together.
This may sound like a very tough watch, but the humour and warmth of the film cannot be ignored either. Ultimately the film does manage to find a cathartic note to end on. Amidst the horror of dementia is a suggestion that compassion may be universal. After all if memories fade and all people around you become strangers, then a kind stranger is indistinguishable from a beloved family member. What matters is the comforting kindness shared between two people, whoever they may be.