Sunday, June 28, 2009

Review: Disgrace

Dir. Steve Jacobs
Year: 2009
Aus Rating: M
Running Time: 121mins

Some movies have such interesting heritage. Disgrace is an Australian financed film, adapted from a book written by a South African, starring an American and a Frenchman while also written, directed and co-produced by a pair of Italian Australians. This mix of nationalities is a far cry from the previous film from husband and wife team director Steve Jacobs and writer Anna Maria Monticelli, La Spagnola. They have spent eight years since that more frothy title navigating the terrain of JM Coetzee's novel Disgrace, getting the rights and adapting it to the screen. On a strictly emotional and intellectual level, the film aims at a higher level, but it also reaches for loftier ground in a pure movie-making sense. It succeeds far more than it doesn't, and that is cause to be thankful.

Set in South Africa after the demise of Apartheid, Disgrace stars John Malkovich as Davie Lurie, a poetry professor at the university of Cape Town, a position he uses to his advantage to get one student, a fine Antoinette Engel, into his bed. His dismissal - and, yes, his disgrace - sends him to the fringes of society from there he decides to move in with his lesbian daughter Lucy, an exceptional Jessica Haines, who lives in the country with only her property's maintenance manager Petrus (Eriq Ebouaney) as company. The political, gender and sexual politics that are already rife due to Lurie's indiscretions are further.

The audience's sympathies, empathies and thoughts are constantly changing and that is one of the film's strongest assets. Just who, if anybody, is right? While it is understandable to take Lurie's position when it comes to the decisions his daughter is making in regards to dealing with the violence heaped upon her situation, one must also ask themselves if we should be trusting anything this man says or thinks, since he has no problem crossing ethical boundaries. And while we may sit confused at the daughter's decisions, at other times it feels as if she is the only sane one. And then there is the character of Petrus, who represents the black Africa that was thwarted for so many years under the rule of Apartheid. Just what is their place in this new South Africa where people's houses - whites and blacks alike - are lined with gates within gates and how one black man can turn on another for misdeeds when they, as a people, have been ostracised for so long.

This tricky web of lofty dramatics could very easily be a turn off, and it's easy to see how an audience member could find it hard to find interest in any of the characters in here. I can't say I liked any of them either, but I found their situations, their motivations and their actions fascinating. A late scene involving Lurie and a dog he has befriended at a kennel is of particular note and perhaps the most important in the whole film. Just what has he learned from the ordeal and are incidents like it just going to further tear apart at a nation already ripped apart by race.

I have not read the novel that Jacobs' film is based on, but I am lead to believe that it is an incredibly faithful work of adaptation. So while I can't come at it from the perspective of somebody who has the read the novel, to which is the littlest of scenes can mean a lot, I could tell where I felt the film had issues and that, perhaps, the elimination of some scenes and the lengthening of others may have been the way to go. By the final act of the film there are many scenes of no great length and of no apparent strong necessity yet they are there and they help to bring it down. Heavy symbolism takes took this viewer out of the film and I felt as if a large amount of the intensity that the film had in spades at the start disappears. Scenes feel almost abstract in their intention, although as I move further away from the film I realise that that is probably the reason for them. The final shot is particularly breath-taking and leaves the film of a mixture of hope, sadness and anger.

Performances are all exceptional with Malkovich proving that he actually is still capable of a good performance after being embarrassing on more than a few occasions recently (Colour Me Kubrick comes to mind). It is probably his finest work yet. Newcomer Haines is quite a find and she presents her characters dueling emotions well. Another to astound is Fiona Press as a vet worker who uses Lurie for her own needs in a wonderful twist to their characters. Photography by Steve Arnold of the South African landscape is wonderful, but thankfully resists the obvious temptation to make it a series of postcards. Music by Antony Partos is effective, while the art direction has a wonderful authenticity about it. That flower garden has a gorgeous juxtaposed quality to it, don't you think?

Disgrace could be a hard slog to sit through for some, but if you are willing to invest your energy in this evocative story then you should be rewarded with a thought-provoking experience. While the final act doesn't meet the rest of the film's high standard, the lasting effects of the film as a whole are well worth the effort put into delving into it. B


RC said...

i really enjoyed the book - and think Malkovich is an excellent casting decision - I wish this film was bigger in a way that it got more attention --- glad it's getting attention here --- i do hope to see it soon.

Guy said...

So pleased to read this. It's actually really interesting to hear the perspective of someone who hasn't read the book -- since it sounds like you've got much the same out of the experience (thematically speaking) as one should from the novel, which is obviously a good sign.

(Do read the book, though -- it's one of the few modern South African works that honestly captures the social ironies and imbalances of the ANC era as I understood and experienced them. That, and Coetzee writes like a master.)

Also really glad to hear so much praise for Haines, who I had a feeling would score in this role -- she stood out to me years ago in anotherwise dreary local soap opera called "Isidingo." One wonders, however, how much higher the film's profile would be had Cate Blanchett been cast as was once mooted.

Glenn Dunks said...

Blanchett wouldn't have worked. Her skin's too perfect (I am actually being serious there).

Guy said...

I totally agree. A little too old, as well -- which I believe is the very reason they passed on her.