Mark Gatiss

The Father



It’s been over a month since the 2021 Oscars, where The Father won awards for best male actor and best adapted screenplay, but somehow it seems I’ve been eagerly awaiting its arrival for much longer than that. It’s finally here, available to view on the big screen, where its powerful narrative pulses from every frame.

Anthony Hopkins is, it seems, the oldest recipient of the best actor award and we know, don’t we, that sometimes such honours are handed out because it’s late in an actor’s career and there might not be another chance to reward him? But make no mistake, his performance in the lead role is a genuine tour de force. As ‘Anthony,’ a widowed man enduring the terrifying, mind-scrambling rigours of Alzheimer’s, he pulls out all the stops, taking his character through a range of moods and manifestations – from grandstanding showoff to sly insinuator – before delivering a final, desperate scene that is absolutely devastating.

Those seeking a rollicking, sidesplitting comedy should be warned: this is not the film for you.

Anthony – when we first encounter him – is living alone in his spacious London apartment, where he’s receiving regular visits from his compassionate daughter, Anne (Olivia Colman). Anthony has recently dismissed his paid carer, claiming that she’s stolen his watch, and he’s adamant that he will not, under any circumstances, move out of the place that he has always regarded as home. But as the story progresses, the touchstones of his life crumble one by one as the familiar things around him begin to change at a terrifying rate. The place doesn’t look the same… items have been moved, rearranged. Anthony’s favourite painting is missing… and why does somebody by the name of Paul (Mark Gatiss) parade around saying that this is actually his apartment? Who is Paul exactly? Anne’s ex-husband? If so, who’s the other Paul (Rufus Sewell), and why does he act like he owns the place? And what’s all this nonsense about Anne moving to Paris?

Perhaps the new home help, Laura (Imogen Poots), might be able to put things in order, but why does she remind Anthony so much of his other daughter, Lucy, the one he seems to have lost touch with? And most bewildering of all, why is it that sometimes, even Anne appears to be a different person than she used to be?

Florian Zeller’s astonishing film, adapted from his stage play, unfolds almost like a psychological horror story, as Anthony struggles to take in what’s happening to him. While I expected this to be bleak, I’m not fully prepared for the power with which it hits me. There’s doubtless extra impact because, for the last ten years of her life, my own mother was afflicted by Alzheimer’s and I recognise many of the beats here as being absolutely authentic. Perhaps that’s why the tears are rolling so copiously down my face.

Despite being confined mostly to one set, The Father never feels stage bound, because so much of what I can see onscreen is in a constant state of flux and because, at times, I feel every bit as unsettled as Anthony does. I’m never entirely sure where a scene is taking place, when it it is set and who is present in it – and that’s not meant as a criticism, but as an observation about the story’s unsettling grip on me. While there was aways a danger of The Father being completely dominated by Hopkin’s extraordinary performance, Colman is as excellent as always, managing to kindle the audience’s sympathy with a mere glance. And Olivia Williams is also compelling as the film’s most enigmatic character.

I walk out of the cinema, bleary-eyed from crying and, if I still have a few unanswered questions, well, that feels exactly right. This is an assured film that handles its difficult subject with rare skill.

So, worth the wait? Most definitely. But maybe remember to take some hankies?

5 Stars

Philip Caveney

The Madness of King George


National Theatre Live

This adaptation of Alan Bennett’s acclaimed 1991 play, a co-production between The National Theatre and the Nottingham Playhouse, stars Mark Gatiss as George III, the much-loved and admired monarch whose reign was nearly destroyed by a protracted battle with mental illness. We now know that George suffered from porphyria, a condition that comes with a whole raft of punishing symptoms – and it’s clear from the outset that the illness itself is worsened by the ill-informed efforts of the court physicians, who set about inflicting a whole series of what can only be described as tortures on the luckless monarch. They bleed him, they ply him with laxatives, they even spill boiling hot wax onto his head and back, convinced that these remedies will drive out his ‘ill humours.’  Little wonder, then, that their efforts are instrumental in pushing the king deeper into delirium. Bennett’s script walks a perilous tightrope between hilarity and the full blown tragedy of watching a man degraded and humbled in front of his family and his courtiers. 

It’s only when Prime Minister William Pitt (Nicholas Bishop) engages the services of Doctor Willis (Adrian Scarborough) that a possible light appears on the horizon. Willis’s approach to the problem is a tough, rigorous routine that seems more appropriate to the breaking of a horse than the nurturing of a stricken human being but, against all the odds, it starts to pay dividends.

Meanwhile, the Whigs see the king’s situation as an opportunity to oust Pitt’s Tories by allying themselves to the ambitious Prince of Wales (Wilf Scolding), who longs for some kind of power and doesn’t mind how he gets it.

This is a handsomely mounted production, which takes off at a gallop and never allows the pace to flag. Each scene segues effortlessly to the next and there’s solid work from the supporting cast, but this is essentially an opportunity for Gatiss to shine and he rises to the challenge with considerable aplomb, managing to bring out George’s innate likeability even as he is reduced to a gibbering, gesticulating wreck by his steadily mounting symptoms.

This is an object lesson in how to present a period piece. Everything here – the costumes, the sets, the actors’ comic timing, the machinations of the various political players, is presented with absolute authority and skilfully directed by Adam Penford.

It’s often said that fact is stranger than fiction and The Madness of King George seems to illustrate this point perfectly. 

4.2 stars

Philip Caveney


Sherlock: The Abominable Bride


The recent small-screen success of the BBC television series, Sherlock has prompted its creators to try something a little different this time around; after successfully updating the concept, they’ve decided to present a standalone episode as a period piece and moreover, to simultaneously release The Abominable Bride in cinemas across the UK in a series of exclusive one-off screenings; all things, no doubt designed to generate excitement in the hearts and minds of its huge army of ardent followers.

The problem is, of course, we’re not quite sure how this switch in time has been achieved – (is it the result of one of Sherlock’s cocaine-adulterated dreams? Or are we simply inhabiting one of the scenarios dreamed up by Doctor Watson in his role as an author of detective fiction?) The fact that we’re never really sure is one of the blades that fatally stabs this enterprise, even as it sprints merrily out of the starting gate, but infinitely more worrying is the ensuing surfeit of intolerable smugness that seems to drip from every sly in-joke and ‘clever’ character interplay we’re presented with. Authors Steven Moffat and Mark Gatiss seem to be hovering in the background, proudly announcing how very arch they’ve been with Conan Doyle’s legacy, but I have to confess that after careful viewing and much consideration, I’m still really not sure what was supposed to be happening in the story and can’t help feeling that the writers have been rather less clever than they suppose.

Anyway, the plot revolves around the case of Emilia Ricoletti (Emily O’ Keefe) dressed in a bridal gown, who appears in a public place, indiscriminately firing pistols at passers-by before committing an apparent suicide; only to reappear shortly afterwards, complete with a large hole in her head, to murder her husband. She then promptly disappears. Baffling? Well, yes. Holmes (Benedict Cumberbatch) and Watson (Martin Freeman), go gamely into detection mode, but the eventual solution for the murder is so risible, it’s hard to believe that the authors thought it would pass muster as anything more than a joke. Blaming it on the Suffragettes? Oh, please… A late appearance by Professor Moriaty (Andrew Scott) at the Reichenbach Falls, has been crowbarred into the story with a total absence of subtlety, which just about puts the deerstalker hat on it.

Of course, Sherlock fans are usually a notoriously loyal regiment, so it must be extremely worrying for Moffat and Gatiss, that amidst the onslaught of social media pronouncements, posted shortly after transmission, only a very few scribes have arisen to defend this debacle and the ones that have, seem to be channelling a definite whiff of the Emperor’s New Clothes (take a bow Lucy Mangan of the Guardian). I’ll admit, I haven’t been a massive fan of the series before now, but this ‘event’ has pretty much put me off investigating further instalments. I’d have loved to have finished this review with the word ‘elementary,’ but sadly, that’s a quality that was missing here.

2 stars

Philip Caveney