Conflict Internal and International

Left to Right: Olivia Colman as Anne, Anthony Hopkins as Anthony in a calm mood during “The Father.” Photo: Sean Gleason, courtesy of Sony Pictures Classics

The Father
A much-acclaimed drama of 2012, “The Father,” examining the world of dementia, has been lauded in theaters around the world, and has now made it intact to the big screen with its writer and director, Frenchman Florian Zeller.  The transfer, with piercing and poignant dialogue, is clearly marked for year-end awards (the film runs 97 minutes and is rated “PG-13” for language).

We find ourselves in a comfortable, well-appointed London flat, appropriate for a prosperous widower of 80. Anthony (Anthony Hopkins), a retired engineer of considerable self-confidence, is used to getting what he wants.  He has just gotten rid of a caregiver, whom he accuses of stealing, and asks his daughter, Anne (Olivia Coleman), to recruit another.  She goes out shopping, and Anthony wanders to another room. Wait a minute: who is this strange man?, Anthony wonders. He introduces himself as “Paul,” Anne’s husband, who notes that this is not Anthony’s flat, but his. Befuddled, Anthony hears Anne coming back…but it isn’t his Anne; it’s another one, younger (Olivia Williams.). What is she doing here, in his flat?

We are, it seems,  in Anthony’s brain, a brain awry with dementia.  When Anne now tells him that she is going to move to Paris, he senses he will be left alone and consigned to a “home,” his worst fear. She assures him that she will find a good person to look after him, but he will have none of it and gets furious. The scenes flashback to another Paul (Rufus Sewell) who is urging Anne to commit her father to some facility and leave behind the old man’s bristly manner and acrid questions. Anthony goes along with the interview with the new caregiver, sweet Laura (Imogen Poots), yet insists he doesn’t want her and needs no help. It ends in a muddle.

Misdirection and confusion continue to cloud Anthony’s mind. But soon it’s worse than that: he is in a strange, new place.  The comforts and patterns of the comfy flat disappear, replaced by a more neutral, clinical space. He is disoriented and fearful, calling out for Anne. But he only encounters the figures he saw earlier in the drama as the second Anne (Williams) and his first Paul (Gattis), in new roles with which he is unfamiliar….

This re-cap sounds like a walking nightmare—which it is—but it is mitigated on screen by the utter, bland normality of the scenes, the staid scenery, and the actors that tentatively float through them. And what makes the actors and scenes work is they are  being contrasted with the frustrated, fulminating Anthony.  Nothing is real for him, on screen or off, as he tries to make sense of a life’s mosaic in shards.

This is, of course, Hopkin’s movie, one of his most vivid and fervent performances in years, and not because it is showy, but because it is so precisely controlled. Sir Anthony is now over 80 and has made over 100 movies and television productions since his breakthrough Hollywood role as Prince Richard in “The Lion in Winter” in 1968. Seen as an intelligent man losing it, he is utterly crushing; seen as a decent fellow drifting from reality, he is heartbreakingly believable.

Left to Right: Merab Ninidze as Soviet defector Oleg Penkovsky and Benedict Cumberbatch as accidental spy Greville Wynne in The Courier. Photo: Liam Daniel, courtesy of Lionsgate and Roadside Attractions

The Courier
“The Courier” is a true-life spy story, a moody return to the Cold War thriller of the 1960’s, recalling, most recently, Steven Spielberg’s  “Bridge of Spies” (2015). Here the protagonist is an unassuming British businessman, Greville Wynne (Benedict Cumberbatch), recruited into one of the greatest international conflicts in history (The film runs 151 mins, is rated “PG-13” and is now on available on screens and streaming).

At the invitation of the British MI-6, in the persons of Dickie Franks (Angus Wright) and a CIA operative Emma Donovan (Rachel Brosnahan), Wynne forms a covert partnership with top-rank Soviet intelligence officer Colonel Oleg Penkovsky (Merab Ninidze) who, though deemed fully loyal by Russian authorities, has become totally disaffected from the Soviet regime and seeks to defect by providing Soviet nuclear secrets that could prevent a nuclear confrontation with the West (This is during the U.S.-Soviet Cuban Missile Crisis with a pugnacious Nikita Khrushchev in charge).

Wynne, though a very buttoned-down businessman, sports a hail-fellow-well-met style that just suits his job as a companionable broker of trade and exchanges between British tradesmen and their Soviet counterparts.  Years of such schmoozing have given him an ability to move into and within Russian business circles which Western officialdom (and intelligence) cannot penetrate.  Both the English MI-6 Franks (and the CIA’s Donovan) suggest him for a “simple” job of linking up with a top USSR source in Moscow: Col. Penkovsky in Moscow.

The first collection of material from the Soviets goes swimmingly.  And as promised, Greville just has to smile a lot, listen to Penkovsky, and whisk some valued envelopes back to London. The relationship blossoms for each man, to the point where Wynne invites—and Moscow agrees—to bring Penkovsky to the English capital for briefings.  The film’s kicker that this gambit might really work is when Greville takes Oleg to the Royal Ballet to see a Russian company perform “Swan Lake” at Covent Garden. At the finale, the men burst into applause and tears, with Penkovsky realizing he might still taste Russian glories even in his new found land.

Wynne’s sweet wife, Sheila, (Jesse Buckley) is devoted to her husband and their young son, but he has kept her totally in the dark about his spy work, insisting he is just keeping up with his usual trade business, only at a new level.

After transferring hundreds of classified documents, the plan has proved a tremendous success, but Penkovsky finally gets trapped in the KGB’s web and can no longer be contacted by London. Learning of this, Wynne, who has built up such trust for his Russian counterpart that he insists he must return to the USSR himself to find and rescue him.  He has now passed from being a mere courier to a true agent. but the Soviet espionage machine also looks to track him down.

The two men—traitor and spy—perform very effectively in their two roles. Cumberbatch must transition from a genial, open British citizen to a tight-lipped, determined enemy of the Soviet Republic. Ninidze embraces the role of a defector, a man of surface power who must maintain a complete poker face to the world so to as not reveal a life of secrets. The real Wynne proved, even as an amateur, a most effective spy, and he also wrote two books about his experiences, but, over his last 30 years, he never returned to that profession.