Apr 12, 2021

The Father and Still Alice: Do these movies correctly portray dementia?

The Father movie

There has been a steady rise in movies about dementia, from many different points of view. Coming soon there will be Colin Firth watching in anguish as his partner, played by Stanley Tucci, slides into early onset dementia in Supernova.

Australian actress Noni Hazlehurst also stars in forthcoming fantasy film June Again, as a woman whose decline into dementia is broken up by a rare period of lucidity in which she aims to resolve several family and personal issues.

Currently playing in cinemas to much acclaim is Sir Anthony Hopkins performing brilliantly as an 80-year-old in a perplexed state of dementia in The Father, alongside The Crown‘s Olivia Colman.

On SBS on Demand, one can still see Still Alice, for which Julianne Moore won an Oscar back in 2015, playing a woman of 50 finding out that she has early onset familial Alzheimer’s disease.

Both of these films have back stories in other formats: The Father as a 2012 prize-winning French play by Florian Zellar, who also directed the movie; and Still Alice as a 2007 novel by Lisa Genova, and – at that time – the only work of fiction about dementia that was endorsed by the US Alzheimer’s Association because of the authentic way in which it tells Alice’s story “from the inside looking out”.

And that phrase, “from the inside looking out”, is also what distinguishes these two movies from each other in illuminating ways, as the two very different internal perspectives – regarding the presence versus absence of insight into their respective conditions – are both very valid possibilities for sufferers of dementia. Both films are, therefore, well worth seeing and learning from.

Alice in Still Alice – a brilliant linguistics professor – realises that something is not quite right with her memory, despite the protestations of her husband that being a bit forgetful is normal as one gets older. Consulting a neurologist, she gets a devastating diagnosis: that she not only has early onset Alzheimer’s, but also that it’s a rare familial form, which may have been passed on to her children.

From then on, the film documents the progress of her disease from her initially very aware and distressing knowledge of what is happening to her mind, and with this, gradually slipping increasingly into a sort of cloudy oblivion. The various reactions of her family also show how this disease can affect different people who are close and loving, but have their own personalities and capacity – or not – to handle the trauma of seeing a family member slipping away from them in this way.

In The Father, Sir Anthony Hopkins plays a retired engineer, also named Anthony, whose experience of his dementing mind is due to a complete lack of insight into what is happening to him, so he lives in a state of angry perplexity, which the film portrays from his perspective.

And so – while we also get to see how difficult it is for a caring daughter (Olivia Colman) to communicate with a person in his state, while trying to encourage him to accept the help of the carers whom she arranges for him – the focus is on him and his irritation with his daughter and the series of carers, each of whom he drives belligerently away, saying that he has no need of them because there is nothing wrong with him.

However, as the film progresses, it is clear that things are very wrong. We are increasingly drawn into the frightening reality of the hallucinatory world that he is living in, where there are subtle scene and time shifts, so that it’s not clear where he is actually living and with whom, and what his relationship with various characters that pop up at different times actually is.

Ultimately, while both of these films are illuminating in their depictions of how dementia can be experienced, I agree with the conclusions of two experts writing for The Conversation in their comparison of The Father and Supernova.

Critically, neuroscientist Lila Landowski and dementia studies professor Fran McInerney’s summary of those two movies applies equally to The Father and Still Alice when they said that “the nihilistic vision of these films, while powerful and thought-provoking, is not the only possible construction of dementia”.

And their final and important point was that while “we must come to terms with the fact that dementia is a terminal disease, the end point does not negate the imperative to respond to the needs of the person; indeed, it highlights the need for empathy.”

Films such as these can help us to develop that empathy.

Have you watched The Father or Still Alice? Share your thoughts with us in the comments.

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  1. I love “Still Alice.” Have watched it many times. I found it extremely accurate and my experiences with my parent’s decline into dementia in their later years matched this movie.

    I hated “The Father” and walked out have way through. Outside of being bored out of my mind, I thought it was not believable at all, in spite of everyone else thinking it was the best movie ever made. I had issues with the relatives and caretakers who seemed to know nothing of Alzheimer’s in this day and age and did everything wrong in dealing with the father.

    Then, I did not find his behaviors similar to the behaviors I have dealt with in my work at hospital and with my parents. I felt it was overdone, out of sorts of normal decline, and just not right. In fact, I felt anger watching this movie rather than sympathy or fear.

    I am curious if anyone else feels this way

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