The Sunday Telegraph
The films shining a new light on dementia
‘The Father’ and ‘Supernova’ illuminate the disease like never before, and are both rooted in painful real-life stories. Alex Godfrey reports
You are not meant to understand what is going on in Florian Zeller’s new film, The Father. Set entirely in the apartment of an elderly man with dementia, played by Anthony Hopkins, the drama deliberately messes around with chronology and identity. Events repeat themselves in different ways. Characters we meet early on are suddenly played by different actors. Objects in the flat disappear, or mysteriously change location.
“I wanted to put the audience in a unique position, as if we were going through a labyrinth, as if we were in the main character’s head,” explains Zeller, 41, when the writer and first-time film director speaks to me over the phone from his home in Paris. “Because if you see [dementia] from the outside – to see someone you know becoming someone you don’t recognise, sometimes aggressive or paranoid or cruel – it is very disturbing. The Father was a way to try to understand that. I wanted it to be not only a story, but an experience of what it could be to lose your own bearings. That is the beauty of cinema – to create ate empathy.”
His work, which he adapted ed from his own hit play, has already made a deep impression on the members mbers of Bafta and the Academy of Motion otion Picture Arts and Sciences; both oth institutions gave the Frenchman man their award for Best Screenplay lay (or Best Adapted Screenplay, in the case of the Oscars) earlier this s year, while Hopkins won both h the Bafta and the Oscar for Best Actor.
But The Father is not the only film being released this year that breaks new ground when it comes to depicting dementia on screen. Supernova, by the 37-year-old British writer and director Harry
Macqueen, is already being talked about as a possible contender for next year’s awards, for the heartbreaking way in which it portrays a relationship between a pianist (played by Colin Firth) and his partner, Tusker (Stanley Tucci), the latter of whom discovers he has posterior cortical atrophy (PCA), a type of early-onset dementia.
Like The Father, Supernova brilliantly portrays the disorientation of the disease. Small moments hit home, such as when Tusker quietly struggles to put on a jumper.
“[PCA] affects your spatial awareness and your vision and your ability to read and write, often way before it affects your memory,” says Macqueen. “It felt like an interesting one to explore because, to all intents and purposes, that person is lucid and can converse and is present most of the time, but also very definitely isn’t, in unseen ways.”
As well as outward symptoms, though, the film also focuses on the enormous impact the disease has on our love for each other.
“I was really keen to focus on the
‘I wanted to put the audience inside the main character’s head, to experience what it’s like to lose your bearings’
intimacy of [Sam and Tusker’s] relationship and let everything else sit in the background, in a horrific way,” says Macqueen. “That was something that other dementia films I’d seen don’t really do.”
Supernova, he says, is a film about “the transitional period that someone has to go through from being an equal party in a relationship to being a carer. That long and infinitely complex transition.”
The power of both The Father and Supernova comes partly from the fact that both directors have first-hand experience of caring for people with dementia. In the case of Zeller, it is his ga grandmother, whose dementia began to emerge when he was 15.
“She w was more than my grandmot grandmother,” he says. “She raised me. She w was, in a way, like my mother. She was a very powerful, strong personali personality, always in control of everythin everything in her life, so it was even more pain painful to see this strong personal personality being challenged, having to let it go. Trying to keep order when t there is no order anymore.” The Father, he says, aims to evok evoke a similar feeling, so that at som some point the viewer has to acc accept that their “brain is not c capable of understanding everything [and they also] have to let it go”. Supernova, meanwhile, was partly inspired by a woman with whom M Macqueen worked several ye years ago, and who contracted ear early-onset dementia in her 50s 50s. During that time he saw how it affected her personality and her work. She was fired, and died a year later. Around the same time, a friend’s father who had early-onset dementia was put into a care home at the age of only 60. Both experiences led Macqueen to want to learn more about the disease. He began volunteering at University College London’s Dementia Research Centre, and working part-time as a carer for people with dementia.
“I was really aware that if I was going to make a film about it, as a moral imperative I needed to spend a lot of time immersing myself in that world,” he says.
Directors of other recent films about dementia have also brought their own experiences to bear. Tom Dolby, writer and director of The Artist’s Wife (2019), about an artist whose wife begins to take control of her own career after his diagnosis, watched his father be transformed by the condition and his mother’s reaction to the change in their lives.
Natalie Erika James, like Zeller, drew from her grandmother’s Alzheimer’s disease when making last year’s Relic. And Viggo Mortensen, who saw the disease ravage both his parents, began writing last year’s Falling, about a middle-aged gay man taking in his vitriolic, homophobic father, on the plane ride home from his mother’s funeral.
Of course, there have been incredibly tender and effective films about dementia before – over the past 20 years we’ve had Still Alice, Iris, Away With Her and Amour, to name only a few. But today’s film-makers are finding new ways to convey the dementia experience, whether it’s from the perspective of the person who has it, or a caregiver.
Of these, James’s Relic is perhaps the most visceral. Taking the form of a horror movie, it tells the story of Edna, a grandmother with dementia, living in a house with mysterious passages, staircases that go nowhere, moving walls and a black mould that mirrors the protagonist’s deterioration as it spreads.
These films are all bringing more awareness to the disease. Glenda Jackson, the former MP, has said that one of the reasons she made the 2019 BBC drama Elizabeth is Missing, in which she played an 80-year-old with Alzheimer’s disease struggling to piece things together while searching for a missing friend, was because it concerned issues that she’d “been banging on about for a decade.”
She added: “In Britain, dementia is still defined by the National Health Service as an ‘incurable disease’, so you have to pay for the care, which is impossible for many. And there is insufficient money being put into research.”
It goes without saying that none of these films provides answers to the many distressing issues surrounding the disease. But, Zeller says, films can at least ask important questions.
“And then everyone can be in that cinema with their own personality and sensibility, and come up with a personal answer about what should be done.” They add to the discourse, further illuminating the illness. And, maybe, paving the way for change.