A debut like Florian Zeller is not for everyone. The first feature film by the French dramaturge and director was a notable success two years ago: “The Father”, an adaptation of Zeller’s eponymous play about dementia that plunged viewers into a perplexing labyrinth of perception, was critically acclaimed, loved by moviegoers and became a favorite at major film awards ceremonies. Zeller and his co-writer Christopher Hampton won best screenplays and Anthony Hopkins won best actor at both the Oscars and the British film awards BAFTA. It was the first part of Florian Zeller’s trilogy about mental illness and the brutal effects it has on loved ones.
After the father comes “The Son”. And after dementia, depression. Again the director has adapted one of his stage plays. And Anthony Hopkins is also part of the second part, but this time more as a kind of talisman, in a tiny but nonetheless brilliant supporting role as a stone-cold bastard and patriarch. Florian Zeller’s drama revolves around the eruptions in a blended family. Hugh Jackman plays a successful New York high-class lawyer named Peter. He just had a son with his second wife Beth (Vanessa Kirby). Life in a chic apartment couldn’t be better. In addition, there is a lucrative job offer from politics. Suddenly his ex-wife shows up at the door and asks him to take care of his son. Nicholas is a child of divorce from his first marriage, 17 years old, clinically depressed and completely overwhelmed by everyday life. He hasn’t been to school in months. Peter takes him in, even though Beth is visibly uncomfortable with her new stepson.
The director shows depression as the monster that this disease can be
After the dramatic impact of “The Father”, “The Son” is surprisingly straightforward and clearly constructed. The plot is extremely simple. The imagery clear. Sometimes Nicholas seems to be doing better, but basically it’s getting worse and worse. And more than the increasingly desperate struggle of the parents for their son, who soon shows suicidal tendencies, nothing actually happens that can be interpreted as both a strength and a weakness in Zeller’s drama. As a viewer, you are not drawn into the story as forcefully. On the other hand, the filmmaker seems to be concerned with the calmness with which the tragedy unfolds. This time Florian Zeller does not play with the perception of his audience. And above all, be showing Movie not with the index finger in one direction or the other. He simply shows depression for the monster that it is. Zeller is not interested in where she came from. Just how she slowly eats away at relationships.
So “The Son” may be formally less exciting than its predecessor, but the undertones of the film are no less claustrophobic, which underlines Hans Zimmer’s gloomy orchestral score wonderfully subtly. What Zeller wants to show is the narrowness, the helplessness, the silent anger. Parents’ pain at their inability to help. And above all, how difficult the disease is to grasp. Zeller doesn’t want to tell the story from the perspective of his title character, as he did in “The Father”. He wants the disease to remain a mystery. When Peter pesters him with questions again and again, Nicholas can’t explain it any better than: “It’s life. It weighs me down.”
The film is particularly worth seeing because of the great cast. Laura Dern routinely plays the lonely ex-wife and mother who breaks at the great black wall of speechlessness between her and her son. And Vanessa Kirby shines with a nuanced performance between care and concern: Beth means well by her stepson, but sometimes looks at him like a ghost in her own four walls. And Nicholas is played hauntingly and incredibly thin-skinned by Australian newcomer Zen McGrath.
The lynchpin of the film is Hugh Jackman. As a father who vacillates between understanding and authority, he delivers perhaps the best performance of his career. In its best moments, it even seems as if the film belongs to him as much as to the director. His light-footedness at the law firm job adds even more intensity to his helplessness at home. In sun-drenched flashbacks he plays with little Nicholas on the beach – the bond between father and son is still intact. He hasn’t been able to get through to his teenage son for a long time. Nothing is more touching in this film than the father not understanding what is happening.
The Son, France/Great Britain 2022. Director: Florian Zeller. Book: Florian Zeller, Christopher Hampton (based on a play by Zeller). Camera: Ben Smithard. Editing: Yorgos Lamprinos. Starring: Hugh Jackman, Laura Dern, Vanessa Kirby, Zen McGrath, Anthony Hopkins. Leonine, 123 minutes. Theatrical release: January 26, 2023.