Hugh Jackman shines in this uncompromisingly grim film about a fractured family

The Son ★★★½
(M) 123 minutes

Like Tolstoy, writer-director Florian Zeller is fascinated by the myriad ways in which families can be eaten up by unhappiness.

Hugh Jackman does a deep dive into his emotional reserves for his role in The Son. Credit:Transmission

The Son is the second film in what Zeller has designed as a trilogy. It was launched in 2020 with The Father, which had Anthony Hopkins as a parent whose dementia causes him to fear and distrust those closest to him. Now, in The Son, Hugh Jackman’s Peter, a successful Manhattan lawyer, is trying to rescue his teenage son from the depths of depression.

The two films do not share a narrative link but Hopkins does make an appearance here, cast as Peter’s father. He’s with us for about 10 minutes, but that’s all he needs. He presents such an icy study in heartless arrogance that further exposure would put us at urgent risk of hypothermia.

Peter’s troubles with his own son begin when his ex-wife, Kate (Laura Dern) pays an unexpected visit to the loft apartment where Peter lives with his new partner, Beth (Vanessa Kirby) and their baby.

Kate is distraught. She has just learnt from the school where their 17 year-old son, Nicholas, is enrolled, that he’s been playing truant for months. Worse, he has started treating her as if he hates her.

Alarmed, Peter agrees to confront his son (young Australian actor Zen McGrath) and one of the few things he gleans from their strained and painful exchange is Nicholas’s wish to come and live with him, Beth and the baby.

Hugh Jackman and Zen McGrath in a scene from The Son.Credit:Transmission

From this point, Peter, Kate and Beth all do their best, in a baffled, and understandably bumbling, way to deal with the illness that is overwhelming the boy.

Like The Father, the film began life onstage in Paris before being translated into English by Zeller’s regular collaborator, Christopher Hampton, who co-wrote this screenplay.

Jackman was the first actor to come aboard after contacting Zeller to offer himself up for the part, and his instincts were right.

In a film as sombre as this one, you desperately need actors who can attract an audience’s sympathy, and both Jackman and Dern do that without any trouble at all. Dern is an actress who wears her feelings just under the skin – whether she’s domineering, despairing or somewhere in between. Here, she’s buffeted by a storm of emotions. Still in love with Peter, Kate knows she has lost him but her attempts to maintain her tattered pride are undermined by nostalgia for what they had together. Her grief is still so raw that you can see how Nicholas has absorbed her sadness through his pores.

Hugh Jackman’s Peter is both guilt-ridden and in mourning for the carefree little boy his son used to be.Credit:Transmission

Kirby has a smaller but tougher and more detached role. Beth is busy with the joys and responsibilities of being a new mother. Having to relate to a troubled adolescent she barely knows is the last thing she needs, yet she makes an effort. Hers is a study in holding the line.

Jackman is the one who must do the deepest dive into his emotional reserves. Peter is both guilt-ridden and in mourning for the carefree little boy Nicholas used to be. At the same time, his career is peaking and his long-held political aspirations are bearing fruit. He’s been asked to work on the campaign of a promising presidential candidate but he’s on the verge of saying no, haunted by the memory of the way his father’s neglect blighted his own childhood. Proof of Jackman’s success in the role is in the way he taps into the poignancy of this self-possessed careerist’s stumbling attempts to save his son – and himself.

It’s an uncompromisingly grim film, made even gloomier by the lighting, which is so fashionably dim that you start to wonder if these well-heeled New Yorkers are behind in their electricity bills. We are occasionally let off the hook with a shaft of sunlight illuminating the pleasure that father and son take in playing video games together or jumping around in an impromptu display of their dance moves. Then the light fades again.

Yet the actors penetrate the murk to make something very touching out of their response to the tragedy which is threatening to derail all their lives. The impact of the film’s final moments is enough to confirm Jackman’s status as one of the most adaptable and intelligent actors at work on the screen.

The Son is in cinemas from February 9.

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