Bill (Anthony Hopkins) is angry. He loves his son, Christopher (Harry Grubb). But he hates that he has nowhere to take him because his ex, Emmy (Harriet Walter), is living in the house he still calls his. He resents the protesting, jobless “kids” he sees at night on tv news, he’s “bloody furious” at women acquaintances who avoid his gaze at parties. He vents his rage by riding his motorcycle at top speeds along urban streets. When, one night he fantasizes about his son covered in plastic, screaming, he’s so upset and excited by this vengeful image — for it is, of course, all about his wife — that he crashes his bike.
Within minutes of its start, Mike Newell’s The Good Father has thus established Bill’s rage. Arriving at a party bruised and slightly bloodied, he scruffs around until he spots Roger (Jim Broadbent), in tears after someone has mentioned his own ex-wife and their child, now living with her and her lesbian lover. Seeing in Roger a kindred spirit, Bill takes him home (via a windy ride on his bike), where they share some thoughts on their similar predicaments. But where Roger is saddened by his loss, Bill is all about the acting out: “I’ve decided they really piss me off, women… All this relating, relationships, interrelating.” While Bill perches on a stool in the back of the frame, Roger lies on his couch in the foreground, closing his eyes as if to sleep off the pain. “That’s what they’re good at,” he sighs. Bill’s impatient. “I always endorsed all that, I used to argue feminism against women. I was such a big boy, you know. I even joined a men’s group once. It was really depressing, endless whinging. It’s not like a women’s group. They enjoy themselves.”
Jealous even as he’s insisting on his superiority, Bill can’t win even on his own terms. His illogic dooms him to still more irritation. The camera closes on him as he remembers “making the bloody tea” for the women’s group, the scrape on his face and his frantic hair making his late-hour dishevelment almost ominous.
The two men help one another with their children’s visits and Christmas decorations. When Bill hears that Cheryl (Frances Viner) means to move to Australia and take her young son with her, he decides that Roger should take legal action. Specifically, he assures Roger, they must fight back, resist the forces arrayed against them (feminism, Thatcherism, capitalism, socialism — take our pick), in order to reclaim some sense of masculine privilege amid the swirl of contemporary life (which, for him, is full of “bloody bitches”). Jane (Miriam Margolyes), an old friend of Bill and Emmy’s, now a lawyer, refuses to take the case “as a matter of principle” (she won’t argue for men against women), Bill declares his outrage at her new-seeming “seriousness.” And so the guys find a male barrister, Mark Varda (Simon Callow), one of the better “younger men.” He’s a bit of a “prick,” notes Roger, but that’s okay, because, asserts Bill, “A prick is just what we need.”
This sense of camaraderie, Bill’s belief that he’s taken on a community cause, makes him blind to the utter meanness of his methods, or his own exploitation of Roger’s desperation. Bill’s visible glee at Cheryl’s upset when they get a legal paper to take the boy from school turns into actual friendliness with Emmy, augmented when she reveals that her new man has moved out. For all the focus on Bill’s emotional rollercoastering, the film, made for British tv in 1986, also makes you keenly aware of the pain he brings to others. Just so, as he and Emmy discuss Chris’ immediately precarious future in the kitchen, the camera finds the boy in the hallway, “listening,” as he later tells Bill, his face straining to understand a conversation that he knows is about him.
While he does a good job sublimating his fear as anger, it comes roaring to the surface when he starts seeing an artist from his book marketing office, the young, hopeful, and utterly lovely Mary (Joanne Whalley). At first, he sees in her the energy he once had, as she doesn’t see doing silly book cover illustrations as selling out, but as granting her the opportunity to do her own work, impressionistic portraits and abstract interiors. Bill admires her work, but also resents her, as he considers himself a would-have-been novelist, sidetracked by his domestic obligations.
A related truth emerges when he tells Mary they should stop seeing one another. “It’s just my feelings are all used up. I can’t seem to care anymore,” he pronounces, much to her horror. When she cries out, letting slip that she was hoping they would have a child together, he reveals his darkest self, in his loathing and fear of children: “All the love that’s going, they take it all, they suck you dry. I couldn’t stand living with him anymore. When I left, it wasn’t Emmy I was leaving, it was him.” And here his eyes tear up as well, suggesting that he’s quite startled that he’s able to say out loud, at last, what’s turned him so ugly.
An excruciating portrait of a man so angry at himself that he can only pitch his rage against those he might have loved, The Good Father is powered by Hopkins’ frankly stunning performance, alongside what might best be described as Broadbent’s grace notes. Hopkins is less raw than he is acute, so that you come to understand him more fully than he can. It’s a harsh, difficult look at the costs of self-righteousness.