REVIEW: The Son, BFI London Film Festival

This big screen adaptation of Florian Zeller’s play is harrowing and sincere – but it feels as though it takes slightly too long for the film to allow the audiences to feel emotionally engaged.

I remember going to see Florian Zeller’s brilliantly emotionally charged play The Son in the West End a few years ago and was blown away by its striking honesty when it comes to examining complex family relationships and how to cope when someone close to you suffers from a mental illness. I was left emotionally drained by the experience.

Now it arrives for new audiences to experience in this sensitively captured film, directed by Florian Zeller with a screenplay by him and Christopher Hampton that brings complex issues to the forefront in a subtle but powerful way.

At the heart of the story, it is a story of a father and son’s relationship and the complex emotions that come with it. Peter is a successful lawyer, who is divorced from his first wife and has remarried and a new baby – life for him on the surface is ideal. But then this all changes with the arrival of his first wife Kate who explains that his 17 year old Nicholas is depressed and skipping school. Nicholas then moves in with Peter, where things seems to improve until a sudden darkness prevails over the family – leading to questions about what it means to be a good parent and how to know what to do in difficult situations without making a wrong move.

This certainly remains a difficult story to watch unfold – there is plenty of pain and raw emotion on display, with Hampton and Zeller’s screenplay managing to transcribe the original play to the screen effectively and the cast all do brilliantly to bring their characters to life. However, it feels that there is too much of a build up – yes it is useful to get a glimpse into the lives outside the family unit that help build a portrait of the characters – but to me it feels there are too many of these moments and distracts from the increasing emotional tension that threatens to explode at any moment.

But, on the other hand what Zeller’s film does well is to capture the intimacy of the story – I particularly loved the way in which many of the conversations are held by two people, giving each perspective enough clarity to delve deep into the issues being raised. There are plenty of powerful moments to be found – not least the brutal conversation held between Peter and his own father Anthony that offers clues as to why Peter is so desperate to help Nicholas and not make him feel abandoned, but flips magnificently when he confronts Nicholas over his behaviour. It is deeply psychological from start to finish.

The whole film is understated and comes across as a slow burner which some might find slightly frustrating to watch – but it is worth sticking with thanks to the outstanding performances from the entire cast. At the centre of it all, Hugh Jackman as Peter delivers a performance that is very detailed and complex portrayal of a father trying desperately to help his son but also increasingly having to deal with his own pain – the strain becoming increasingly clear and painful to see. Meanwhile Zen McGrath as Nicholas really captures the character’s spiralling turmoil of emotions in a understated way that means the audience can’t take their eyes off him. Laura Dern as Kate provides a heartbreaking portrayal as a woman who seemingly can’t understand how life has got to this point – she gives her a fragility that makes the audience sympathise with her.

Overall, while it didn’t grab me as emotionally as the stage production did (there feels just a little bit of distance that prevents the audience getting too close to any of the characters), it is still a quietly compelling film to watch unfold.

By Emma Clarendon

Rating: ⭐⭐⭐⭐

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