The Son, Florian Zeller’s follow-up to the hugely successful The Father, is every bit as bleak as the first instalment in his adapted-from-the-stage trilogy. (The Mother – yet to be made into a film – is, by all accounts, no cheerier.) The Son is simpler and less complex, without any of the clever disorientation that earned its predecessor a ‘best picture’ gong. But that’s okay: the telling suits the tale.
Although Zen McGrath plays Nicholas, the titular son, this is really Peter (Hugh Jackman)’s story: the focus is on his perception of his relationship with his child. Peter loves Nicholas, that much is clear, but his marriage to Kate (Laura Dern), Nicholas’s mum, is over. He’s got a new girlfriend, Beth (Vanessa Kirby), and a new baby boy, Theo (Max and Felix Goddard). The split has not been easy: Kate is devastated, unable to refrain from sharing her hurt with Nicholas, and Beth is struggling to cope with the demands of a new baby. “You’re working. All. The Time,” she tells Peter – repeatedly. Nicholas can’t cope. He feels lost and abandoned. He stops going to school and begins to self-harm. And then he asks to move in with his dad.
The Son is a detailed account of the myriad tensions that form relationships, the delicate threads we weave and break in our clumsy attempts to love. Despite all the trappings – good jobs, swish apartments, private schooling, therapists – the adults around Nicholas are clueless; they don’t know how to help him. It’s a convincing portrayal of depression seen from the outside: Nicholas is closed and inarticulate, angry that no one understands him, but unable to say what’s wrong. He veers between sullen silence and long, rambling attempts to explain his pain. None of it helps. Peter desperately wants to be a better dad than his own father (a scene-stealing cameo from Anthony Hopkins), whose ‘man up’ putdowns are breathtakingly cruel. But there’s a limit to what anyone can do. The film feels like an illustration of a tragic truth: depression is difficult to live with, and there’s not always a way to help someone ‘get over it’, no matter how much you love them.
McGrath inhabits his role convincingly, his misery etched large. Dern and Kirby also make the most of what are, it must be said, quite limited roles, circling around the pivotal father-son. But just as this is Peter’s story, so it is Jackman’s film, and he proves that he really is a triple threat. From Marvel hero to all-singing, all-dancing Showman, he’s done it all – and here, he’s demonstrating that he can do gravitas too.
Slow-paced and claustrophobic, The Son isn’t a big film like The Father. Instead, it’s a quiet and sometimes chillingly sad meditation on a young man’s mental health problems in a world that’s ill-equipped to deal with them.
The tragedy is that it seems so ordinary.