Director – Florian Zeller – 2022 – UK – Cert. 15 – 123m
A man and his wife must deal with the mental illness of his son by a previous marriage when he moves in with them – in cinemas from Friday, February 17th
Peter (Hugh Jackman) is a successful New York lawyer with a wife Beth (Vanessa Kirby) and a small child Theo. One day, his ex-wife Kate (Laura Dern) turns up at his apartment door to inform him that, as she’s just found out, their teenage son Nicholas (Zen McGrath) has not been to school for one month. She has tried to talk to the boy but got no sense out of him. When Peter goes to visit them, the boy insists he’d like to come and live with his dad.
New mum Beth is understandably hesitant, but nevertheless the couple agree to have Nicholas stay. It quickly becomes apparent that he has grievances against his father and step-mother for leaving his mother and becoming involved with his married father respectively. While Nicholas has never got over his parents’ break-up, Peter has continued in a career which leaves him increasingly less time for family. That looks like getting worse, too, because he has the chance of being part of the team of an electoral candidate.
But then he discovers Nicholas is self-harming and has a knife hidden under his bed “to ease the pain”, the boy claiming it gives him a sense of relief. Eventually he is diagnosed with depression. Peter comes to see himself as repeating the mistakes of his own father (a brutal, one scene Anthony Hopkins) in raising him, directing the blame in on himself to produce terrible feelings of guilt.
When so many plays adapted for the screen suffer from the fact, this one, despite taking place largely in a single apartment, feels like a genuine movie. The characters in the deft screenplay adaptation of Zeller’s play by himself and Christopher Hampton draw you in, and the cast bring them to life quite brilliantly. McGrath as the son exudes fragility and self-doubt, Kirby convinces as the young mum while Dern is heartbreaking as the wife who never quite got over her husband leaving. Performance-wise, it’s really Jackman’s film though, as he moves from the successful professional class type through struggling everyday dad and ultimately to damaged child who takes out his own father’s insecurities on his son.
The Son of the title at first appears to refer to Nicholas, but after a while you realise it applies equally to Peter. His plight is underscored by a career path which perhaps demands too much of him and situation of the inevitable conflict between the offspring of a first relationship and a second. If his son finds this latter burden impossible to ear, so, too, it seems, does Peter himself.
Like the same team’s The Father (Florian Zeller, 2021) this offers an incisive look into difficult aspects of parent/child relationships – in that film, a parent with dementia, in this one, a self-harming, suicidal son. It’s another journey into the protagonist’s state of mind such that, by the time you reach the end, your impression of who they are and what makes them tick is completely different from what it was at the start.
Despite its New York setting, the UK production was shot mostly in London, as stated in the LFF’s brief, introductory Q&A.
The Son is in cinemas from Friday, February 17th.
It previously played in the BFI London Film Festival 2022 which ran from Wednesday, October 5th to Sunday, October 16th 2022 in cinemas and on BFI Player.
LFF 2022 Trailer: