The Plot: New York lawyer Peter (Hugh Jackman) has rebooted his life with new partner Beth (Vanessa Kirby) and a young baby in tow. There are political aspirations too in Washington D.C., which might occasionally take him away from his new family. His previous life comes crashing back when his ex-wife Kate (Laura Dern) turns up at the door, concerned about their teenage son Nicholas (Zen McGrath). He has become depressed and withdrawn, so Peter takes him into his home in the hope of a change in mood. However, Nicholas is not OK and increases the tension between Peter and Beth…
The Verdict: French writer/director Florian Zeller made an impression a few years ago when he scored an Oscar win for Anthony Hopkins in his film The Father. A deeply moving film about the detrimental effect of dementia, it also acted as a portrait of the relationship between a daughter and her father as he gradually slips away. Zeller continues that same trend with his latest film The Son, which deals with the equally thorny subject of mental illness affecting the lives of two intersecting families over an eventful few days. It also features Hopkins, though a different set of characters populate the domestic drama here. At this rate, Zeller will have to complete the hat trick and make The Mother as well. That would be welcome, given his delicate sensibility and focused direction of his A-list actors as they portray ordinary people in family crisis mode. Alarm bells are ringing but it appears that almost nobody is listening out for them.
Adapted by Zeller from his stage play along with Christopher Hampton, The Son works as a double portrait of fathers and sons. Ostensibly, it’s the story of high-flying lawyer Peter and his teenage son Nicholas coming back into his already busy life. Peter’s divorce with ex-wife Kate has left a gashing wound open in Nicholas, leaving him distant, unreachable and unable to function with daily life like attending school which he secretly skips. To Peter, it’s business as usual as he gets on with his new life unaware / ignorant of the mental damage that has been wreaked on his son. It also acts as a portrait of intergenerational trauma when Peter’s own father Anthony (Hopkins) shows up to deliver a withering rebuke to him. ‘Deal with it’ he casually says about neglect of his son some four decades earlier. In that single scene, a typically-excellent Hopkins tells the audience all they need to know about what’s wrong here as this trauma extends into the next generation.
The real question though is does anybody actually care enough to notice and address it. A frequent question asked of Nicholas is ‘are you allright?’, to which he responds ‘I’m fine’. That’s not to say that Peter, Kate and Beth don’t care at all. They do care, but not enough to understand Nicholas’ behaviour and his uncomfortable body language which speaks volumes. While the adult actors (especially Jackman) work well here with the script and are faultless, it’s glaringly obvious that their characters and their perception of the situation are trimmed back to the point that the audience is silently screaming at them to wake up before something unfortunate happens. This is presumably a deliberate choice by Zeller to heighten dramatic tension, but it also has the effect of lessening the emotional impact when the familial unit starts to crack further. It comes across as contrived and more than a little manipulative, as exemplified by a further theatrical device at the close of the film.
‘Children are a crushing responsibility’ remarked Olivia Colman’s character in The Lost Daughter. It’s a thought that is echoed by Beth in this film and yet she is the only character who half-way notices what’s going on with Nicholas. Parental guidance, or a lack thereof, is a key theme in this film which questions the life-changing decisions that adults make that trickle down to their children. The Son is not an easy watch by any means and doesn’t entirely gel together, but there’s an undeniable power to its message about tackling mental illness head on which makes it worth seeking out all the same.
Rating: 3 / 5
Review by Gareth O’Connor
In short: Parental guidance
Directed by Florian Zeller.
Starring Hugh Jackman, Zen McGrath, Vanessa Kirby, Laura Dern, Anthony Hopkins.