Robert Horton is a Scarecrow board member and a longtime film critic. He will be contributing a series of “critic’s notes” to the Scarecrow blog—a chance to highlight worthy films playing locally and connecting them to the riches of Scarecrow’s collection.
After months of “Oscar season” promotion, two films finally open for regular public consumption. Both carry the whiff of Oscar bait, with serious subjects and prestigious actors, which may have something to do with why I put off watching them until just recently. They looked pretty square, and there are so many other things out there to watch.
There are still a lot of things out there to watch, but I am glad I made time for The Father and The Mauritanian, because these are strong and worthy films, in their very different ways. The Oscars have gotten hipper lately, so it might be the case that these two do not register in the way they might have in years past, but it would not be wrong if they were recognized, at least in a few key categories.
The Father is based on a French play by Florian Zeller; he also directs the film, in English, with screenplay help by Christopher Hampton. It is set inside a large, elegant London apartment, although in the same way that Death of a Salesman takes place inside the mind of Willy Loman, a great deal of The Father could be unfolding inside the head of Anthony, an 80-year-old man whose ability to live on his own has become compromised by his failing mind. In scenes that seem to drift into each other and sometimes double back again, we meet Anthony’s daughter Anne (quietly scrupulous work by Olivia Colman), her husband (Rufus Sewell), a potential live-in caregiver (Imogen Poots), and sometimes others who may be related to the drama (Olivia Williams, Mark Gatiss).
Zeller navigates these shifts with elegance, but the elegance conceals a blade, and various moments detonate with a sharp jab of domestic cruelty. The Father never seems to be about an issue, in a movie-of-the-week way, but about a family dynamic that feels both specific and universal. This situation is illuminated, often thrillingly, by a central performance from Anthony Hopkins that might be the best of his career. Hopkins does something here that, it seems to me, he has been aiming at for years: a perfect blend of British technique and American directness. If his early years as a screen actor were marked by his use of formidable technical skills that could feel like an empty exercise, his later work (I’m thinking of his expansive turn in the unjustly neglected The Human Stain, for instance) has broken down some of that skill with a less calculated approach. The Father is the culmination of that. This is, let us be clear, not some kind of naturalistic turn where the actor blends into the part; Hopkins is crafting something, as an artist who has thought about the piece and has shaped it according to his insights. But it also taps into a level of mystery that lives in the moment. The Father is very fine, but the performance is a masterpiece.
There’s nothing quite at that level in The Mauritanian, but it, too, has a powerful central presence: Tahar Rahim, so memorable in Jacques Audiard’s great film A Prophet, plays Mohamedou Ould Slahi, a man arrested on suspicion of being involved in the September 11, 2001, terror attacks. Slahi wrote a book detailing his experiences as an inmate (if that’s the right word for someone who was never charged with a crime) at Guantanamo Bay detention camp, where he was kept for 14 years. Rahim’s performance is alert with intelligence and alive with disbelief; he’s absolutely credible as a character who could not only withstand the torture of his detention, but also be able to write a book about it.
It’s directed by Peter Macdonald, whose blunt approach is familiar from The Last King of Scotland. The movie relies on a string of familiar, almost comforting narrative tricks—for instance, proposing a straight-laced, Southern-twangy military prosecutor (Benedict Cumberbatch) who will eventually be driven by his integrity to question the military’s gung-ho campaign against Slahi—to carry forward its brief. Jodie Foster is canny casting as a salty legal eagle (Shailene Woodley plays her greenhorn associate) working for Slahi’s benefit; if this is the kind of turn Foster’s going to give us in this phase of her career, we’re in for some treats. Whatever conventional methods The Mauritanian uses, it’s still a strong example of cinema’s ability to put a human face to a legal outrage, and to select certain details to crystallize a moment of absurdity. Did you know there was a gift shop at Gitmo? I didn’t, but walking through it with Foster’s character during the movie, the revelation makes perfect, nauseating sense.
March 12, 2021
Robert Horton is a member of the National Society of Film Critics.