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The Power of Production Design – an analysis and review of The Father (2021)

WARNING: This piece discusses major spoilers for The Father.

When the advertisement for The Father started rolling out, showing Anthony Hopkins and Olivia Colman smiling and with quotes talking about “tender” and “stunning” performances, I was shocked by the tone that the marketing team wanted to give with this film. To me, those posters feel deceptive of what the film is actually about and how harrowing the subject matter actually is.

For those who are not already aware of the two-time Academy Award winning film, The Father is about Anthony (played by Perkins), a man that refuses all assistance from his daughter Anne (played by Colman) as he ages. He starts to doubt his loved ones and his own mind as he has to come to terms with changes within his life. With a short runtime of 97 minutes, it certainly packs a punch.

Many people have already sung the praises of the two leading performances, with Hopkins deservedly winning Best Actor at the Academy Awards. This is such a hard script from director-writer Florian Zeller, and yet it is the emotion and subtle touches from both Hopkins and Colman that really helps bring their characters to life in such a short amount of time.

The screenplay, which was the second win for the film in the Adapted Screenplay category, is incredibly complex but so tightly written. At first, it can be a shock to the system that the film continually goes back and forth on ideas and plot, and yet that is exactly the point of the screenplay. Not only are we given an explanation as to why the character of Anthony is disorientated and confused, but we also get to see it through his eyes. It is so easy to feel confused with a film like this, but every decision has a purpose and with every reveal it sparks a moment of brilliance.

However, I suspect that many people have already made thought pieces on the screenplay and the performances. What I want to focus on with this review is the aspect that to me help bring out the themes of this film and further enhance the impact of the film – that comes down to the production design, giving credit to Peter Francis.

When I saw this film for the first time on TV in February, I primarily focused on the performances and screenplay, thinking that would be the showcase piece. Both of those aspects are great, but it was not until last week when I sat down and saw this film on the big screen that I realised just how spectacular the production design of this film was. The production design did end up getting a nomination at the Academy Awards, which does feel unusual for the Academy to pick something more subtle and yet showed that they recognise how brilliant it was.

The production design is used to further enhance the idea that Anthony is not aware of his own surroundings, at least not as much as he suspects he is. In terms of the production being his own house, the layout does seem to shift from time to time to focus on specific rooms that are needed for those scenes. The dining room is shown only once in this film, and yet it feels like the house doesn’t have that room in the layout again. It cleverly uses the space that is given so that no aspect is wasted, and yet also adds to the confusing narrative that is purposeful and incredibly effective.

The film also takes two different approaches to changing the production design when coming up to the end of the film. The first one is more drastic, in which the interior completely changes based on what the location required is. Instead of taking the characters to an entirely new place when they visit a doctor, they redecorate their house to look like a medical practice. It is so clever how they manage to pull this off, and yet it is still obvious enough that it plays into the idea that we are seeing it through our lead character’s eyes and this is what he imagines.

However, it is the subtlety of the second approach that helps create a major impact with the final reveal that all of this time, he hasn’t been in his own home. He has been in a nursing home, which is why some of the details in the house seem to disappear over time. The big detail comes with the painting, which not only acts as a personal piece for Anthony and a way to develop a side plot with his other daughter but is a symbol for the personal aspects of his house that he lost during the move to a nursing home. Yet, there are also some other small touches that help transition the house over to a nursing home, including chairs that can be seen in the hallway and the long corridor that acts like numerous patients’ rooms.

This is the reason why I want to get back into the habit of re-watching newer films before giving a real in-depth review. When I first watched The Father, I gave the film a 4/5. Watching it again on the big screen really made me appreciate not only the performances and the screenplay, but the level of craft within the filmmaking that makes this one of the most terrifying but important watches of the year. It is currently in cinemas in the UK, and I would highly encourage seeking it out on the big screen if possible.

Rating: 4.5 out of 5.

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