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The Son ★★★



Director: Florian Zeller

Cast: Hugh Jackman, Laura Dern, Vanessa Kirby, Zen McGrath, Anthony Hopkins 

Release: November 11, 2022 (US) 

An opportunity to talk about something many experience but few recognise is always one that’s worth taking. Conversations surrounding mental illness, acute depression, and suicidal tendencies are limited in supply but also have the capacity to be mishandled when attacked with gay abandon. After much-acclaimed success with the film adaptation of The Father, it’s possibly a surprise that Florian Zeller’s The Son falls somewhere in the murky no man’s land. Struggling to hit emotional heights in some places while packing a tear-jerking punch in others, Zeller’s mastery of his script doesn’t seamlessly translate from stage to screen. 

After choosing to stop living with his mother (Laura Dern), Nicholas (Zen McGrath) moves in with his father (Hugh Jackman) and new girlfriend (Vanessa Kirby). Experiencing increasingly troubled thoughts, family dynamics become fraught as both Nicholas and his parents struggle to understand his feelings. With each character at the end of their tether, Nicholas’ well-being becomes a life-or-death situation.

Undoubtedly, the strength of Zeller’s work lies in his stories. Each movement through the narrative arc is more harrowing than the last, deep diving into themes that few have dared to face in the theatrical framework. Motifs that could feel tired or dated are brought into a new lease of modernisation, with dysfunctional family dynamics remaining his forte. Yet the cinematic elements of The Son does little good for its overall experience. Dern and Kirby are the strongest glue that holds the ensemble together, while Jackman’s emotion flakes from spotty to unbelievable. Surprisingly, it’s the son himself that remains the weakest link, with McGrath unable to hit a stride that entrenches itself in effortless emotion.

By thinking outside of its flat-shaped framework, Zeller and the creative team spread themselves too thin. Originally taking place in one room, the film’s adaptation incorporates the city of New York, work environments, and a totally unnecessary cameo from Anthony Hopkins. It’s a pungent story that requires a sense of intensity that’s as strong as its subject — yet letting outside life seep in arguably dampens its effect. The Son also struggles with adapting to an American touch, missing its rugged British edge that pounds hard-to-stomach topics with an undeniably violent shine. 

There’s no doubt that at some level, The Son will pull on the heartstrings. If viewers are personally affected by issues, or perhaps approach it on a relatively tiring day of ill health, the sobs will come in bucketloads. But taking an objective step back, the output is far from Zeller’s finest. Read the script. See the play. Have the conversations. But save The Son for another time.

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