The Father has been widely praised for being a powerful portrayal of dementia but a dementia charity has revealed that there’s one scene that should never have made the cut.
Florian Zeller’s drama shows characters and locations changing appearance before our eyes as the viewer is thrown into the shoes of someone who has dementia.
Dementia is a syndrome (a group of related symptoms) associated with an ongoing decline of brain functioning.
Karen Harrison Dening, Head of Research and Publications at Dementia UK, has given her take on the film, describing it largely as an accurate portrayal of the illness. However, one scene didn’t sit right with her.
‘My only criticism would be that when Anthony Hopkins is in a care home, he becomes quite distressed and he becomes quite tearful. The nurse character deals with it quite well initially – she validates his distress, she validates his emotion, puts her arms round him, but then she responds by saying, “Come on baby,”‘ she told Metro.co.uk.
‘Am I’m just thinking, “Whoa. You were doing really well up to that point.” It’s good to acknowledge somebody’s distress and to validate it and to be with them and physically touch them and be in the moment but to call them “Baby” when it’s a 80 plus year old man felt totally inappropriate.
‘But that literally was my only criticism. If I was training somebody or saying, what could you have done better there? I would have said, “Why not use his name, rather than the expression ‘baby?’” It’s infantilising.’
Despite that scene, Karen, who often consults on scripts and book drafts relating to dementia, described the film as largely ‘an excellent portrayal of possibly what it might be like to have dementia.’
‘The observer thinks, “What’s real? This environment, this flat, what reality is it? Whose reality is it?”‘ she reflected.
‘I think they do get over the confusion that a person with dementia might experience, and those experiences that might make them a bit suspicious, or a bit, “Why are you saying these things to me? Why are you doing these things to me?”
‘I think they’ve done it really well – Anthony Hopkins did the role justice and also Olivia Colman really did come across as the caring but very stretched and distressed daughter.’
One of the difficulties with The Father is that it’s very hard to know what it’s actually like to experience dementia, let alone to put that across on film.
‘We are learning more and more about what it’s like to experience dementia, as people with dementia in the earliest stages are given a voice, and we’ve had some really good ambassadors that have corrected us on our use of language, of how they like to be referred to, telling us about what it’s like if somebody tries to impinge upon their autonomy for example, so we are learning a lot more,’ Karen explained.
‘But when a person advances to the later stages of dementia, we’re just left to describe what we witness, because often they have communication difficulties and they might not be able to express what it’s like.
‘And the way they often express what they’re feeling is through distress behaviours and we can only help to problem solve, or [find out] what’s causing this distress, and try and respond to it in the best way we can.’
In terms of wider film and TV representation of dementia, Karen urged writers not to glamorise the condition, referencing 2014 film Still Alice as an example.
‘I think you can still be true to the condition but let’s not over-glamorise this, otherwise people will have a very false perception of what dementia is. If a family member’s seen Still Alice, and then the person they live with is diagnosed with young-onset dementia, they may feel they’ve been cheated because their relative’s declining at a more rapid or worse way.’
While films like The Father go a long way to spread awareness about the reality of dementia, Karen explained that there are still a lot of misconceptions to combat.
‘There’s a perception that dementia is an inevitable part of aging and it’s not,’ she pointed out. ‘It’s brain disease, it’s underlying diseases that cause damage.’
She added that, in the past, dementia has been classed as part of mental health services when it’s not, resulting in dementia patients’ behaviour not always completely being understood.
‘In the case of Anthony Hopkins’ [character], we saw him getting quite distressed in the care home because he couldn’t understand where he was and he wasn’t able to communicate what was worrying him and what was distressing him and so it came out as this sort of behaviour.
‘And the problem is that a lot of these behaviours are often misinterpreted and thus mismanaged, or medicated, or suppressed.’
The Father is out in the UK on June 11.