Peter (Hugh Jackman) has it all. A beautiful young wife in Beth (Vanessa Kirby), a baby boy, and a future career as an aide for a presidential hopeful. However, this is not his first family.
Peter is divorced from Kate (Laura Dern) who he left for his current wife. Peter’s 17-year-old son from his previous marriage, Nicholas (Zen McGrath) is extremely troubled. With Nicholas showing signs of self-harm and having not been to school in a month, his mother is at the end of her rope. The decision is made for Nicholas to move in with Peter and Beth in hopes that this change will be a quick fix. To the dismay of everyone, Nicholas’ issues run deeper than thought, and will drudge up painful memories from Peter’s own past.
This marks the second in director Florian Zeller’s trilogy of plays he has adapted to the screen. After The Father showcased a woman watching her dad struggles with dementia, The Son is a look at clinical depression in teens, equally heavy in subject matter and hard to watch at times.
I appreciated the production design on display here and the subtle emotions it invokes. The difference between Kate’s home and Peter and Beth’s apartment are night and day. Kate’s is a warm, homely abode and yet Nicholas is fleeing to the cold modern design of Peter’s place.
Hugh Jackman shines as Peter and this is truly his movie. As such a personable actor, we can believe his plight immediately. This is a situation which largely shows what his past decisions have caused and cruelly, Nicholas doesn’t shy from letting him know it. He struggles to connect with his son and to lift him up in any way that he can. On the other hand, it is extremely difficult to empathise with Nicholas, although I really wanted to.
The topics in The Son are truly raw and have touched me in various ways. I understood that this was going to be a hard movie dealing with a teen acting out, so I approached Nicholas with great patience. But Zen McGrat’s performance, not aided by the screenplay, is extremely one-note. Early on he delivers an emotional though tearless monologue about how he is struggling to cope, and this act is repeated throughout the film. While we see Nicholas attend school, wander the streets and mope about, we never get a sense of who he truly is and what is bothering him. This perfectly recreates Peter’s frustration in interacting with such a troubled teen but it fails to help us empathise with Nicholas.
I feel The Son is almost secretive in how it delivers its story. Many conversations and events are not shown. Instead, they’re talked about in past tense. We don’t see an argument; we see the characters apologising afterwards. We don’t see Nicholas bonding with his baby brother, we’re just told he loves him. Nicholas has proven himself deceitful and Peter is in denial of his son’s issues, so we can’t take their word for anything. The rule is ‘show dont tell’ for a reason and all of this pulls us away from the characters rather than drawing us in.
After winning an Oscar for his performance in The Father, Anthony Hopkins makes a small appearance in the role of Peter’s father. This is undoubtedly the best part of the film as they clash, reflecting a divide which echoes down the line to Peter and his own son.
Zeller knows this is depressing material and he hammers it in hard. With a melancholic soundtrack and a score by Hans Zimmer, he really sets the scene for an anti-depressants commercial. Unfortunately, at times things become so melodramatic, it is almost hard to take the topic seriously.
Zeller and co-writer Christopher Hampton won an Oscar for best adapted screenplay on The Father. Many of the same pieces as are in place in The Son with Hampton returning. Ironically, considering the plot, The Son struggles to live up to its predecessor. At over 2 hours, the film drags on and becomes predictable, while failing to say anything profound.
The Son will be in cinemas from February 9th.