When Sir Anthony Hopkins features in a film, audiences expect greatness. But Hopkins’ keenly observed portrayal of a man in denial as he slides into dementia is simply extraordinary.

French author Florian Zeller has adapted his highly successful 2014 play about this diabolical disease into a screenplay, making The Father his star-studded debut as a film director.

Staying faithful to its stage roots, the film has a small cast and a focal location. Yet how Zeller uses both these elements to illustrate the onset of dementia is as clever as it is visually enthralling.

The film opens with Anne (Olivia Colman) rushing back to a tasteful London flat. Her father, Anthony (Anthony Hopkins), who is 80 years old, has fired yet another of the carers that Anne has hired to look after him while she is at work. Despite his denials, his memory has been slipping and he’s enraged by the evidence that his independence is slipping with it.

Anne is at the end of her tether. She could hire another carer, but the situation is no longer that simple. As she explains to her father, she’s moving to Paris to be with the man she loves. What she wants to say – but can’t – is that Anthony needs to go into a home.

We follow Anthony from his bedroom into the kitchen to make himself a cup of tea, then into the living room, where he finds a strange man reading The Guardian. He claims to be Paul, his daughter’s husband (Mark Gatiss). Anne returns, but it’s a different woman (Olivia Williams). Anthony struggles to adjust, attempting to disguise the depths of his confusion and distress. He asks after her husband – only to have her look at him quizzically. There is no husband.

The changes in actors playing Anne, her partner Paul (also played by a brusque and unsympathetic Rufus Sewell) and the new carer Laura (Imogen Poots) are the most obvious external signals of Anthony’s deteriorating powers of recognition. More subtle and cleverly executed are the changes to the set. Each time Anthony enters a room, it is slightly altered in era, furnishings and cleanliness.

Through dialogue, we understand that Anthony believes himself to still be living in his own flat, yet we also know that at some stage he has moved in with Anne. Conversations repeat, people alter, the decor changes: the audience are left as unmoored as Anthony. What is real?

This is the heart of the film’s ingenuity – we are inside a mind as it unravels. Zeller and Hopkins allow us a glimpse of the discombobulating slippages of time, place and people that dementia inflicts and the fear, anger and confusion it wreaks.

Fortunately, the flurry of Academy Award nominations for this film haven’t ignored the other power-house performance of this piece – that of Olivia Colman. Pulled between guilt and love, her father and her partner, and struggling to find the right path in the face of her father’s bravado, charm and volatility, Colman’s Anne is magnificent.

The Father is an inventive and penetrating perspective on dementia and the toll it takes on both the afflicted and those around them. With stupendous performances by Hopkins and Colman, Zeller has transformed this astonishing stage play into an outstanding directorial debut, creating one of the best films about ageing of the modern era.

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This article is supported by the Judith Neilson Institute for Journalism and Ideas.