Reviewed by Glenn Erickson
By 1986, American domestic issue films had mostly retreated to television, there to become soap opera movies of the week. This English examination of the anger and frustration of divorced fathers has bite mainly because it refuses to simplify the emotional mess of families breaking up. Anthony Hopkins' performance is another of his excellent showings before he became a household name with The Silence of the Lambs.
Book marketer Bill Hooper (Anthony Hopkins) is a man of barely controlled rage. He roams the night streets on his motorcycle, seething over his failed marriage and the limited time he is allowed with his small son. He befriends tearful Roger Miles (Jim Broadbent), a teacher in a similar domestic situation upset because his wife Cheryl (Frances Viner), now living in a lesbian relationship, plans to move to Australia and take their son with her. Bill encourages the passive Roger to do something. Roger overreacts by enlisting obnoxious barrister Mark Varda (Simon Callow) to regain custody through a legal cheat.
Although Bill Hooper considers himself the victim of feminist aggression, the roots of his problem are all in himself. Dissatisfied with marriage, he and his wife Emmy (Harriet Walter) agreed to an open arrangement, but Bill left when he discovered he couldn't handle the idea of Emmy with other men. Now he perceives himself the target of man-hating activist females, especially his former friend Jane Powell (Miriam Margolyes), an abrasive feminist who wears a T-shirt that reads "all men are rapists."
The pitiful Roger Miles has already been defeated by his low self-esteem. He tried to accommodate his wife Cheryl's idea that men are genetically inferior drones, and now she thinks she can do as she pleases. Bill sees in Roger's situation an outlet for his personal anger, and concludes that women are out of hand - "Don't you see, they're trying to kill us. They want us dead." The two fathers are soon preparing a heartless legal ambush.
Christopher Hampton's script is sensitive to the emotional rot that can work its way into a marriage. The 'victimized' fathers don't seem so helpless when they use lies and a pre-picked judge to legally steal Roger's son back from his tearful mother. The Good Father sees marriage trouble as a civil war, with each side building resentments that eventually find expression in bitter reprisals. The tiny children are always listening, absorbing the anger.
The Good Father doesn't pretend that apologies can heal all marital wounds. Bill's ugly acts leave a permanent barriers that preclude the notion of a reunion with Emmy.
The only underdeveloped angle in The Good Father is Bill's affair with Mary Hall (Joanne Whalley), a younger woman who makes him feel old and constricted. Nothing is made of the fact that their romance starts as a work relationship with Bill as the boss. He worries that winning her is too easy. At first uncomfortable with intimacy, he's soon comparing Mary to women of his own generation. Mary makes no demands but Bill carries his flaws with him. He's unable to fully trust anyone, not even himself. Bill isn't fit company any more, and he knows it.
The Good Father sees the battle of the sexes from a bitter male point of view. It's an absorbing drama, an unsentimental Kramer vs. Kramer complicated by sexual politics. Anthony Hopkins is an ordinary guy transformed into a brute by an inner rage that turns out to be mostly self-directed.
Home Vision's DVD of The Good Father is a quality enhanced transfer of this theatrical film produced by British television. The clean image and clear sound let us appreciate the fine performances and director Mike Newell's fair-minded eye for detail. Sadly, there are no extras. It would be interesting to hear the filmmakers talk about the film's politics - Bill and his friends seem to be former liberal college students gone sour, their views polarized in the conservative Thatcher years.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
The Good Father rates:
Packaging: Keep case
Reviewed: June 15, 2005
Republished by permission of Turner Classic Movies.
DVD Savant Text © Copyright 2007 Glenn Erickson