The Son

The Son review | A reasonably affecting family melodrama

High-flying businessman Peter (Hugh Jackman) struggles to get through to his son Nicholas (Zen McGrath) in Florian Zeller’s family drama, The Son.


The depiction of mental health in films has come a long way in recent years. Where the mentally ill used to be ring-fenced as either serial killers or melancholic 19th century women, now they’re often placed front-and-centre of the narrative, where conditions from Schizophrenia to dementia are given a rightful place in the spotlight. Which is exactly where we’ll find Florian Zeller’s latest film, The Son, a broad, largely unsurprising drama about depression which nonetheless hits plenty of emotional sweet-spots over its brisk runtime.

Hugh Jackman, given a welcome chance to flex his dramatic chops, plays Peter, a smart and smartly-dressed businessman with a new wife (Vanessa Kirby) and an even newer baby, living the dream in a penthouse flat in New York. But when his ex-wife, Kate (Laura Dern) arrives with worrying news about their teenage son, Nicholas, Peter’s life seems about to get decidedly knottier.

It’s a film that more or less lives or dies on its performances, which is no bad thing considering the bucketloads of star-power on screen. Jackman is practically magnetic in what is very much the leading role (despite what the title might suggest), and Laura Dern contrasts brilliantly in her turn as a mother struggling to keep her head above water. Vanessa Kirby, though excellent, wrestles with an underwritten character that never really progresses out of “jealous wife” territory, while Anthony Hopkins has a surprising and deliciously mean-spirited cameo as Peter’s distant father.

Arrayed against this character actor rollcall, newcomer Zen McGrath does an admirable job holding his own. That’s handy because, as the title suggests, he’s pretty central to the narrative. Since the film is more interested in the impact of his condition on the people around him than his own struggle with depression, he’s by necessity absent for a lot of the story’s more impactful moments, and that does contribute somewhat to the feeling that Nicholas is being left out of his own movie. There’s also little of the filmmaking trickery of Zeller’s last outing, The Father—don’t expect any mid-scene actor changes here. For good or ill, The Son is a much more standardly dramatic fair.

The Son does a pretty good job of conveying the barrier that can exist between a person with a mental illness and their loved ones, and watching Nicholas’ family struggle over and over to break through is genuinely heart-breaking. Beyond that, though, there isn’t much sense that Zeller’s drama is pulling off anything too ground-breaking, and the story feels a little like one we’ve heard many times before. Still, it’s very competently constructed, and, a few pieces of particularly clunky exposition aside, the script holds up well enough to deliver some choice emotional punches as the story draws to a close.

The Son arrives in UK cinemas February 17 2023.

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