Florian Zeller has already devastated audiences in 2020 with his movie The Father, based on his own stage play and adapted by Christopher Hampton, with Anthony Hopkins as the old man being cared for by his daughter played by Olivia Colman while he succumbs to the tragic endgame of dementia. Maybe the title of Zeller’s new film The Son – again from his own play with a Hampton screenplay – provides a kind of emotional rhyme or complement to that.
The Son is a laceratingly painful drama, an incrementally increased agony without anaesthetic. At the centre of it, Hugh Jackman gives a performance of great dignity, presence and intelligence as Peter, a prosperous New York lawyer whose life is enviable: he is divorced (that situation being now amicable enough), remarried with a baby son, and on the verge of a political consultancy which might give him some sort of superstar future role in the White House.
But then his first wife gets in touch saying that his 17-year-old son by their relationship is deeply depressed, playing truant from school and begging to stay with him for a while. Peter decides he can’t honourably refuse; his new wife decides she can’t refuse her husband - and everything is to lead to darkness without anyone ever being able to tell if they did the wrong thing, if there was a right thing to do or a right turn to take, or if the nature of mental illness means that this is all irrelevant anyway. Vanessa Kirby plays Peter’s new wife Beth; Laura Dern is his first wife Kate; Anthony Hopkins has a cameo as Peter’s formidably angry father and the young Australian actor Zen McGrath is Peter’s troubled son Nicholas.
The Son is a beautifully composed and literate drama with impeccable performances, especially from Jackman: the sleek Manhattan lawyer gleaming with corporate prestige in his corner office (the faint unreality of the studio sets with the city’s diorama beyond the window work in the movie’s favour). But small things betray his internal pain: his handsomeness is etched with strain and he has never shaved properly: a stubble of sleeplessness and anxiety shows through.
I am not certain quite what I think about this film’s Kodak-moment flashbacks to happier times or to the final scene: it packs a sledgehammer punch, no doubt about it, but I also felt something too slick in it, a conjuring trick played on the audience’s emotions, a legerdemain which doesn’t have the meaning of the POV-shifts and reality-erosion in The Father.
Watching The Son means uneasily pondering possible influences, such Lionel Shriver’s We Need to Talk About Kevin, or Philip Larkin’s This Be the Verse, or indeed Anton Chekhov’s dictum about what happens when a certain object is produced in act one. But there is something distinctively Hellerian in its pessimism. Peter accepts Nicholas into his now crowded home because it is the right thing to do, but also because at one level he wants to rebuke his own cold and uncaring and irresponsible father – and in fact engineers an unannounced visit to the old man, clearly just so he can tell him what is happening with Nicholas and then use that as a pretext to dredge up the past.
Dern shows how Kate herself is over their breakup only in the sense she is able to accept it rationally, but if anything has a clearer sense of her grievances – and is perhaps not entirely displeased that young Nicholas could now damage or even destroy Peter’s remarriage. Kirby shows her candid fear of Nicholas – who is sometimes charming, sometimes unsettling – and Nicholas himself is candidly angry about the way his father abandoned him (as he sees it), but his attitude is different; he wants something in return for a ruined past.
But what? Does he want to bring them back together: if so, it seems to be working, in its way, but at what cost? Or is he simply transfixed and horrified, in a way that adults learn to suppress, by the terrible and unjust irreversibility of the past? Or is he just psychologically disturbed in ways that do not admit of analysis?
At a level deeper than this, I think The Son is about the middle-aged generation’s fear of and incomprehension of the young. Peter looks into Nicholas’s face – sometimes smiling, sometimes crying, sometimes eerily blank – and can see nothing there that tells him the truth about what his son is thinking and feeling and what he should be thinking and feeling in return. Again: I’m unsure about that showy final scene. But this is such a powerful and literate film.
• The Son screened at the Venice film festival on 7 September.