Like Florian Zeller’s 2020 Oscar-winning “The Father,” “The Son” is adapted from Zeller’s play, yet while Florian draws emotional performances here, the film lacks the same level of excellence and attention to detail of “The Father.”
“The Father” (Le Père) and “The Son” (Le Fils) are part of a trilogy which includes the 2010 “The Mother.” “The Mother” was the first produced in French, followed two years later by “The Father” although in English, “The Father” was produced first (London 2014 and New York 2016. “The Mother” followed a year later in 2015 but didn’t hit New York until 2019. That’s slightly disturbing that the first play now takes a backseat and, without opening on Broadway, now has become a film.
Zeller forces the viewer to remember “The Father,” having cast the same who played the titular character in that film, Anthony Hopkins, as the father of the primary character of “The Son,” Peter Miller who is played by Hugh Jackman. Jackman gets to show that he bring emotional heft to the screen without superhero effects and he holds the screen against Hopkins, who only appears briefly.
Yet “The Son” isn’t just about one son, but several sons and the generational gaps and burdens they share. The film begins with a newborn baby boy. The man looking down at this baby is an older man, Peter Miller (Hugh Jackman). His face is soft with untroubled love, the kind that comes when you aren’t weighted down as the primary caregiver and have yet to deal with everything from the terrible twos to teenage angst. This is easy, innocent love filled with potential.
This isn’t Peter’s only son. This is his first son with his new wife, Beth (Vanessa Kirby). Peter was married to Kate (Laura Dern) with a son, Nicholas (Zen McGrath) when he began his affair with Beth. We don’t know the particulars of his marriage to Kate, although Peter fleetingly mentions that he stayed in the marriage for Nicholas. And yet that means that ultimately, his love for Nicholas wasn’t enough. His revery with his new son is broken when his ex-wife calls.
Nicholas hasn’t been going to school. He’s 17 and has managed to keep Kate from finding out that he has been ditching class for nearly a month. She doesn’t know what to do and turns to her ex-husband Peter. Peter is filled with guilt, but he doesn’t know that Nicholas is filled with anger–toward Peter’s betrayal and especially toward Beth. When Nicholas reveals his loathing to Beth, she decides to keep the peace and doesn’t tell Peter.
Peter and Kate want to do the right thing; they listen and they are fooled by Nicholas. McGrath as the troubled young teen remains a cipher. We aren’t sure of exactly what he feels and when he is manipulating his parents, but the script makes clear that this beautiful boy is intelligent enough to play his parents against each other.
The cinematography doesn’t always serve the story well, with problems of lighting and balance, particularly when the scenes are backlit. Still this film features strong performances by Jackman and Dern. As this is part of a trilogy, I’m curious to see how both “The Father” and “The Son” fit in with “The Mother.” While I’ve seen “The Father” on stage (at the Pasadena Playhouse with Al Molina in the title role), I have not seen the other two. Perhaps curiosity will bring these all to the stage in Los Angeles.
“The Son” premiered at the 79th Venice International Film Festival in September 2022 and was screened at the Toronto Film Festival. It is scheduled for release on 25 November 2022 by Sony Pictures Classics.