Film director/playwright Florian Zeller is back on the big screen with a bang – with The Son, a follow-up to his Academy Award winning tour de force, The Father. The Father brought Sir Anthony Hopkins his second Best Actor Oscar as a man living with Alzheimer’s and recognized Zeller (and co-screenwriter Christopher Hampton) with Best Adapted Screenplay honors. It was also nominated for the Best Picture Oscar. The Son is on track to repeat its predecessor’s award winning ways – and more.
Both The Father and The Son are based on a trilogy of stage plays written and directed by Zeller. While The Father, which featured Hopkins and Olivia Coleman (in an Oscar nominated performance as his daughter), was an intensely intimate film, The Son, with double the main cast, casts a wider, albeit equally intense, net.
Hugh Jackman (a shoo-in for a second Oscar nomination) is Peter, a successful Manhattan lawyer (and who has just been offered the role of lead counsel to a Senatorial campaign), who lives with his younger, trophy wife (Vanessa Kirby, Oscar nominee for Pieces of Her), and their newborn baby boy. Peter’s first marriage to Kate (Oscar winner Laura Dern) resulted in a son, Nicholas (Australian newcomer, Zen McGrath) who, in the beginning of the film, is living with his mother in a brownstone in lower Manhattan. As the opening scene unfolds, it is learned that Nicholas has been playing hooky from high school – for a month – just roaming around Manhattan all day concealing his pain. When prompted and finally answering truthfully, Nicholas tells his mother that he is missing school because he just can’t function. He is thinking strange thoughts and just doesn’t feel well at all mentally. After calling Peter to come talk to his son, Kate is in for a shock when Nicholas decides he wants to go and live with his father and his new child bride.
The mental anguish that Nicholas is enduring oozes out of him. But it isn’t visible or tangible like blood is. Mental anguish can keep oozing, as there are no bandages or stitches to stop it. It keeps oozing until the brain heals, or until every last drop oozes out and there is no life left. Nicholas’s parents cannot even begin to comprehend what is going on in his head and it’s impossible for Nicholas to convey what he is feeling in words. There are no words that can explain the inability to cope with mental illness.
Are the sins of the father truly laid upon the children? In The Son, Peter has little-to-no relationship with his workaholic and sociopathic father (Anthony Hopkins), who was and still is married to his career and never had time for either Peter or his dying wife (Peter’s mother). The Hopkins father character in The Son is as evil as that of Hannibal Lechter. There may not be any eating of human faces and livers but the type of evil he unleashes in The Son lasts a lifetime and eats the soul. Is Peter turning into his father? Is mental illness inherited? How does Peter break that cycle with his own sons—especially a teenager who is as mentally and emotionally vulnerable as his baby brother?
As anyone who has experienced life with someone living with dementia knows, the dialogue and acting in the movie The Father was so realistic that some moviegoers actually thought Anthony Hopkins just might have Alzheimer’s. The Son is equally as accurate in its portrayal of mental illness—and its impact on loved ones.
McGrath captures the pain, the sorrow, and the hopelessness of teen depression perhaps even better than Timothy Hutton did in his Oscar winning performance in 1980’s Ordinary People. Some of The Son’s most realistic and heart-rending moments take place in a hospital where Nicholas and his parents formally meet with a psychiatrist to discuss treatment options (there is no quick fix).
The Son is nothing less than perfection when it comes to writing, acting, editing, directing and original score (by Oscar winner Hans Zimmer). The entire cast is extraordinary but pay particular attention to the one scene that Hugh Jackman and Anthony Hopkins are in together on screen. Making their interaction appear utterly seamless, Hopkins and Jackman show exactly what acting is meant to be. Their one scene together, which transpires in less than ten minutes, is also what Best Supporting Actor Oscar nominations and wins are made of. (Reminiscent of the powerful Tom Cruise/Val Kilmer scene in Top Gun: Maverick).
Everyone knows a “son.” You may even be one or have one. This “son” is one you will never forget.
Note: This review was published before the film’s debut at the Venice Film Festival. The Father won the Best Picture the year it appeared in the fest. Stay tuned later this week to see if lightning can strike twice.
The Son opens in NYC and LA on November 11, 2022.