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Film Review: The Son (2023)

Directed by Florian Zeller. Written by Florian Zeller and Christopher Hampton


Reviewed by Justin Clarke

Starring Hugh Jackman, Laura Dern and Zen McGrath

Classification: M; 123 mins

Opens in theatres February 9th

Suicide and self-harm references and coarse language


3.5 Stars


- A fragile exploration of mental health that is, at it's heart, well-meaning, though handled awkwardly by its director -


Florian Zeller’s The Son, a spiritual sequel to his award-winning 2020 film The Father, is again based on one of his own stage plays (Le Fils) and adapted by writing partner Christopher Hampton. Whereas The Father is an exploratory character piece on the struggles of one man’s dementia - which won Sir Anthony Hopkins an Oscar - The Son is a relentlessly bleak and painful piece of drama that acts as a cautionary tale for the signs of severe mental illness.


Zeller’s goal to bring to the forefront another character study on a debilitating disease of the mind is sometimes hit and miss. However, it’s the casting of Hugh Jackman that solidifies this film as one worth seeing. From the very beginning Hans Zimmer’s score informs us that the film itself will not provide comfort. Zimmer’s all too recognisable strings and synth builds an air of anxiety and isolation as we quickly realise that the film's title is not inherently reflective of the young 17-Year Old Nicholas (played by Australian actor Zen McGrath), but instead his father, Jackman’s Peter.


Peter’s life is all too envious, from his cushy job as an attorney with views of the Manhattan skyline, his prospering links to a political career, and a new wife in Vanessa Kirby’s Beth and their child, Theo. After a phone call from his now ex-wife Kate (Laura Dern) informing him of his son’s truancy from school, Peter questions the success of his life as he welcomes his troubled son Nicholas into his new idyllic household.


As we follow Peter’s mishandling of Nicholas’ mental illness, it's impossible to not release a few exasperated sighs along the way. Peter is more focused on scolding his son out of his depressive mental state, forbidding him from self-harm, seeking to reassure himself that, “He’s doing better”. Kate and Peter’s love and care for their son is still ever present though, but Zeller’s use of flashbacks to a more picture perfect time in their lives reminds us constantly that they are willfully wishing for things to be ‘normal’.


As opposed to The Father, The Son is less focused on exploring the idea of mental illness in the young character Nicholas, than on exploring the axis of Peter’s life between being a better father than his own, and his desire to save his son entirely. The reappearance of Hopkins as Peter’s narcissistic father is blindingly stoic as the conversation ends in a chillingly brutal, “Fucking get over it” line delivered exquisitely by Hopkins, making a small scene immensely large. It’s a pivotal moment in the film that Jackman physically takes on board, particularly in a climactic outburst between father and son, as Nicholas emotionally tears down his father’s walls, blaming his adultery with Beth as the reason for his mental state. It’s here Jackman shows a break through his withheld demeanour, one that ultimately shocks Peter as much as it does his son.

Hugh Jackman in Florian Zeller's The Son (2023)


McGrath’s blank stares, coupled with Zimmer’s anxiety-riddled overtones place us in the parental role instead of purposefully exploring the second son in the film. What exactly has caused Nicholas’ state is left as a rather depressing question, merely hinting that something occurred at his previous school, coupled with his parent’s divorce.


The women in Peter’s life impact and reflect his ongoing desire to show his own father that he is, in fact, better than him. Dern’s Kate is quietly withdrawn, holding onto the much happier times in her life with Peter and Nicholas as a family. Her subtle yearning for that life makes her inability to handle Nicholas’ situation much harder to watch. Kirby’s attempts to help Nicholas never fully take shape, instead we’re shown her fear of him and inherent need to protect her own child more so than the helpless one in front of her.


Whilst The Son has made the leap from stage to scene, it intensely holds its theatricality at its heart. It wouldn’t be a far stretch for audiences to sense its small beginnings due to some stunted dialogue and rather dramatic handling of some of the more sensitive material. Those more theatre adept in the cinema will be able to notice Zeller’s obvious handling of a particular object loved by Checkov, which makes the film's climactic moment all the more palpable, if not a bit cliched.


Where The Son sits in comparison to other films that deal with the same subject matter is one for debate. Whilst some may say that Zeller missed an opportunity to explore deeper into Nicholas’ psyche and explore the ins and outs of mental illness, others will find Zeller’s exploration of a parent’s fear and inability to read their child’s mind something that is intensely palpable.


Despite some awkward directorial choices and cliched theatrical tropes, at the heart of The Son is a message we all should take away about looking much, much deeper when those we care the most about are hurting

The clumsy handling of The Son’s finale is all too theatrical for its own good. It’s clear Zeller has attempted to provide reassurance after the film’s climax, but his twist-but-not-a-twist switch feels more like a pull of the rug, leaving you in a much more vulnerable state than if he were to let the film’s ending sit. It’s this handling that gives weight to the argument that the film is nihilistic and acts as a cautionary tale for parents, rather than providing hope to those out there who suffer the same as Nicholas.


Despite some awkward directorial choices and cliched theatrical tropes, at the heart of The Son is a message we all should take away about looking much, much deeper when those we care the most about are hurting. The Son will leave some audience reaching for the tissues silently in the theatre long after the credits roll, others will leave frustrated that the film didn’t take the direction they wanted. Whichever audience member you are, it cannot be denied that Hugh Jackman’s applause worthy performance provides this film with its must-see quality.

 

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