The Father and Supernova: Rethinking the place of tragedy in disability films

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Alison Wilde compares two recent films The Father and Supernova, which respectively see Anthony Hopkins and Stanley Tucci take on the role of characters who have dementia

a poster for the film The Father

The Father poster reproduced under Fair Use

I want to get one thing clear from the start; The Father is not an easy watch. It could easily be described as a horror story, albeit one without any actual monsters, but a film which nonetheless makes no effort to spare us the terror of dementia.

In many ways, it could easily be seen as a ‘negative’ disability film, one which reinforces the fear of impairment, dredging up those awful vulnerabilities we all have to face and spend most of our lives trying to avoid. To paraphrase David Hevey from a Disability Arts and Culture seminar from 1991, most representations of disabled people have been based around disabled people’s fears of loss (death, work, physical prowess), shaping tragic portrayals of people with impairments  and ideas of disabled people as abnormal or ‘other,’ as ‘dustbins for disavowal’.

While we have made some (piecemeal) progress, the need to move away from this cultural dynamic does leave us with some problems with the representation of disabled people who have progressive conditions – especially where internal difficulties become more disabling than the oppressions of the external world. Contextualised within a mediascape where characters with dementia have become a rather lazy trope to support the story lines of leading non-disabled characters, I have begun to expect that any mention of an off-screen 65+ character (usually parents of protagonists) will lead us to the almost inevitable dementia story line, with an emphasis on the ‘burden’ of care and crumbling relationships.

Both The Father and Supernova were excellent, but in different ways. However, it is The Father which will stay with me for a long time. This is because, for me, it is one of the few films which captures the experience of impairment and disablement entirely from the point of view of the disabled person – perhaps the holy grail of disability representation, that rare feeling of authenticity.

Part of the horror of the film stems from the outstanding attempt to provide a view of the person who is experiencing dementia. I think this is quite a feat – it would be impossible to represent dementia in ways which were true to the lives of those who experience it, but this feels like it comes close to the psychological/emotional torture of people in later stages. In addition to difficulties in gaining a clear picture of such experience, there could certainly be no universal statement to make about dementia – another reason (if one is necessary) to stop using older characters with dementia  in terms of the ‘burden’ to others, in an entirely predictable manner.

Although we are often focused on an external view of Anthony, who is played by Anthony Hopkins, the whole film is structured around his confusion. He, and we, are never sure where he is, who is speaking to him, what his living circumstances are, what his social status is, not to mention the confusion and contradictory glimpses into the lives of those around him, especially his daughters. This chaos is captured through the use of different actors playing the same person, repetitions of his views (often cringe-worthy), and the adept use of the arrangement of the scenery and props.

All the action is played out in an apartment, although we gradually learn that he appears to be in two, and eventually three, different settings. These are so indiscernible from each other that most viewers are not likely to spot the differences until Anthony notices that his personal items have gone (his watch, a favourite picture just disappear). Similarities in design, kitchens, windows, bedrooms and living rooms, allow us to assume that he is, as he believes, in his own apartment from the start of the film.

Our capacity to eventually differentiate between his own apartment and his daughter’s home follows the evolving confusion that he experiences. The clear differences in habitus become more obvious in details such as the wall art, furniture design, including contemporary/dated furniture, and also different views outside of the window. Thus, both he and the audience are uncertain of where he actually is at any one time. We are unsure about who he lives with, or why he is (or isn’t) living with them, and even what these people look like.

In the end, it almost seems that this confusing array of people who surround him are trying to make both him and the audience question their sanity and perception of reality; these include his daughter played by both Olivia Coleman and Olivia Williams, her husband played by Rufus Sewell and Mark Gatiss, and his new ‘carer’ Laura, played by Imogen Poots and Olivia Williams. This all very unsettling, but it works so well. By the final scenes of the film, I was firmly planted inside his view of Anthony’s world, feeling his pain deeply. Sobbing.

Anthony Hopkins is utterly convincing in this role. I found that his physicality was an asset here – far from looking like a frail old man, just hanging on to life, we saw a man who was, by turns, arrogant, ridiculous, self-aggrandizing, a little creepy, and a poor parent to his loving daughter. A thoroughly dis-likeable character at times, although this just didn’t matter.

And that is why I loved this film – compassion shouldn’t depend on the merits of the recipient if we are to be fully human. The film did so much to communicate the pain and fear of a rapidly escalating diminishment of social identity and control. As such it spoke to the universal need to treat all disabled people with dignity and compassion, regardless of whether they are deemed of value.

With old age having virtually become synonymous with dementia, I was also interested to see Supernova, a film which does fall into the category of rapidly changing relationships between loved ones, but places early-onset dementia in the context of caring social and romantic relationships. This is a very different film – and is perhaps more controversial in that a central premise is that of the character Tusker’s decision to choose death over dementia. His choices are being shaped at a much earlier stage than that experienced by Anthony. Again, the performances of the leading actors were outstanding – Colin Firth, as Sam (a musician) and Stanley Tucci as Tusker (a novelist). The film provided a respectful and subtle portrait of how such as diagnosis is likely to affect a couple, and of how its progress creates new and increasingly painful gaps between lovers and friends.

Unlike The Father, it did not add to my knowledge or understanding of how this may feel, but then it shouldn’t have to. The producers’ choice to focus on the drama of their relationship, and their different views on suicide, means that we do not gain as much of the ‘insider’ perspective, beyond the occasional difficulties, discomfort and embarrassment faced by Tusker, which are all underplayed. A notable exception to this is the rawness of Sam’s discovery that Tusker’s creative talents have all but disappeared in any meaningfully productive form, and that he has been hiding this from him.

This is perhaps the most significant plot point in shaping dialogue on Tusker’s loss of identity and consequent desire to stop living. Like many other disabled people, I am wary of films and media which reinforce the idea of suicide as a better option than life in excruciating  pain, but it is heartening to see a depiction of the inter-dependency between people when dementia enters people’s lives, and what disabled people’s autonomy means in such circumstances.

Overall, I welcome such films on the topic of dementia, and each of these has provided a good example on how to do this.  There have been good representations like Supernova in the past, including some on early-onset dementia. However, as much as I liked both of these films, it is rather disappointing to see the continuing marginalisation of economic privilege by featuring people who are wealthy.

This matters. First, there is repetition of the ‘how far have they fallen’ trajectory, from polymath to being unable to remember your own name, which works to uphold the hierarchies of merit/talent which push most of us (particularly disabled people, those from ‘working-class’ backgrounds, and marginalised ethnic groups) to the bottom of the pecking order. Secondly, it also neglects, even denies, the importance of wealth in the provision of resources and support. It is something of an insult to disabled people to remove considerations of economic hardship when we are disproportionately represented amongst ‘the poor’. I am left wondering how much more heart-breaking The Father would have been if poverty had also played a part.


The Father: (2020) distributed by Lionsgate is directed by Florian Zeller and stars Olivia Colman, Anthony Hopkins, Mark Gatiss and Olivia Williams.

Supernova (2020) is produced by British Film Institute/ BBC Films and directed by Harry Macqueen starring Colin Firth and Stanley Tucci.