Two Very Different Versions of Anthony Hopkins

Jan 29, 2023

Sir Anthony Hopkins may be 85 years old, but he’s been as active in the last few years as any actor a quarter of his age. It’s not like Hopkins only appears in under-the-radar projects either; he recently appeared in both the blockbuster sequel Transformers: The Last Knight and the ambitious HBO science fiction series Westworld. Hopkins delivered one of his most critically acclaimed performances ever in The Father, which earned him a very deserving Academy Award for Best Actor. Although Hopkins’ resume is stacked with great titles, The Father ranks among his very best.

Directors know they can rely on Hopkins to deliver impactful, emotional performances, even if he’s only in a film for a few moments. 2022 saw Hopkins appearing in two buzzy award season titles; Florian Zeller’s The Son, and James Gray’s Armageddon Time. Although he’s playing an influential grandfather in both, the characters couldn’t be any more different. While Armageddon Time shows Hopkins at his warmest and most endearing, he’s tasked with playing an absolutely monstrous role in The Son.

These films serve as great examples of Hopkins’ range. He’s able to change the temperature of a film in only a few brief moments, and in both films he’s tasked with delivering monologues that revolve around the central themes of the text. Armageddon Time is an optimistic, nuanced examination of Jewish life, while The Son is a depressing, emotionally manipulative film about depression. Leave it to Hopkins to give the most moving performance in an absolute masterpiece, and deliver the only interesting scene in a terrible film.

Armageddon Time

Image via Focus Features

Armageddon Time examines a struggling Jewish family in the 1980s, and was loosely based on Gray’s own upbringing. You can tell that the screenplay is embedded with personal moments that must have been plucked directly from Gray’s memory; Hopkins shows the warmth of an elder man who is reflecting on his life. Paul Graff (Banks Repeta) has a hard time forming relationships; he constantly argues with his parents, Irving (Jeremy Strong) and Esther (Anne Hathaway), and struggles to make friends with the rich kids at his new school. Paul is openly aggressive and gets into trouble, but he’s able to show a more sensitive side during the conversations with his grandfather, Aaron Rabinowitz.

RELATED: ‘The Son’ Review: Hugh Jackman Can’t Save Florian Zeller’s Bleak, Empty Drama | TIFF 2022

While it initially seems like Aaron is completely ignorant of Paul’s issues, he subtly hints that he has more wisdom than he’s revealing. Paul’s parents have a hard time explaining his new school to him, but Paul is determined to give it a shot after hearing his grandfather’s wisdom. Hopkins shows that Aaron understands that he will only get Paul to focus if he shows compassion; he encourages the young boy to pursue his dreams of being an artist, but he also saddles Paul with responsibility. Aaron’s discussion about his experiences with anti-Semitism in Ukraine are quietly riveting, as Paul knows that his grandfather has escaped suffering.

In a scene that essentially summarizes the themes of the film, Paul takes Aaron to launch a toy rocket in a park; it’s fun to see Hopkins being so playful. However, he begins to have a more serious tone when Paul admits that he’s been bothered by the racist comments of his new classmates. His grandfather emphatically tells him to resist discrimination, and fight for the underprivileged. Hopkins is able to make this scene resonate deeply; he gives Paul a call to action, but not a command. It’s fitting that this inspirational moment is the last we see of Aaron before his heartbreaking death.

The Son

Image via Sony Pictures Classics

Both The Son and The Father were adapted from Zeller’s plays. While The Father embraces the cinematic nature of showing an older man’s perspective, The Son simply feels like a cloying, dull melodrama. Unfortunately, these issues are seen through the film’s emotional bluntness; it seems like all the dialogue was intended to reach the back of an auditorium, not appeal to an intimate crowd. It stigmatizes depression as the recently remarried political consultant Peter Miller (Hugh Jackman) struggles to care for his depressed teenage son, Nicholas (Zen McGrath).

The biggest issue with The Son is its lack of subtlety; events and thoughts that would have been more powerful if they were implied are simply stated in awkwardly blunt statements. Hopkins doesn’t escape this melodrama, but he’s at least able to explore some emotional nuance. It’s clear from Peter’s brief conversation with his father, Anthony. Anthony mocks Miller’s sensitivity, and refuses to apologize for ruining the romantic relationship with his mother. It’s implied that Miller’s struggles dealing with Nicholas are a direct result of his father’s poor example.

The one unspoken theme that Hopkins suggests is that Anthony might not be completely aware of his actions. It’s implied earlier in the film by Miller’s conversations with a coworker that Anthony is suffering from some sort of illness. He’s so resoundingly furious and argumentative in their brief conversation that he might be suffering from the same dementia as his character did in The Father. Whether this is inadvertent or due to Anthony’s refusal to accept the truth is unclear, but nonetheless it’s an interesting nuance.

Excellence and Exceptionalism

Both Armageddon Time and The Son attempt to be relatable; their quality can be distilled to Hopkins’ brief scenes. While Armageddon Time is clearly Gray’s personal narrative, there’s a universal quality to Hopkins’ performance that resonates with anyone who has ever had a loving grandfather, or suffered from a tragic loss. The Son is a film with a story that would have worked better on stage, and Hopkins is proof. He gives the type of imminently detestable performance that would clearly appeal to a live audience.

These films serve as a great example of Hopkins’ range. He can be kindly, sensitive, and absolutely lovable, but he can also play a monstrous, abusive older man who has never been accountable for his actions. It takes a great actor to be the most memorable part of an excellent film like Armageddon Time, and an even better one to be the only interesting aspect of a complete disaster like The Son.

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