Movie Review: Film Version of J.M. Coetzee's 'Disgrace' Lives Up to Its Source

John Malkovich is David Lurie, an aging professor who must deal with the consequences of his sexual aggression in "Disgrace," adapted from the J.M. Coetzee novel.
John Malkovich is David Lurie, an aging professor who must deal with the consequences of his sexual aggression in "Disgrace," adapted from the J.M. Coetzee novel. (Paladin)
By Philip Kennicott
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, October 2, 2009

Americans have been so brutalized by the cheap language of moral simplicity in our political and cinematic culture that almost any foreign film that leaves things open -- that suggests no easy answers, no basic Manichean oppositions -- feels like a sophisticated, even great film. "Disgrace," an ambivalent 1999 novel by Nobel Prize-winning author J.M. Coetzee, documented the dark and violent side of post-apartheid life in South Africa. Now it is a movie -- and one with no easy answers, no simple villains and no redemption at the end.

Is it a great movie? John Malkovich's portrayal of an aging and sexually aggressive professor of poetry is enough to make the film worth anyone's while. Malkovich plays David Lurie, a divorc?, an intellectual and a self-deluded rooster of the academic rostrum. After a lifetime of bedding any woman he wants, he has enough charm left to get a conflicted student (played by Antoinette Engel) into bed a few times. She yields to him reluctantly, passively, in scenes that are disturbingly coercive.

And then she tries suicide. Lurie is now disgraced, cut adrift from the academic life he has always known, and cast out upon the generosity of his lesbian daughter, Lucy (brilliantly played by Jessica Haines). She has a small farm in the countryside, where she reads Dickens and grows flowers, but her presence as a white woman in an increasingly anarchic world is tenuous at best.

There is a moment of violence -- as brutal and blunt in the hands of director Steve Jacobs as it is in Coetzee's bare-bones prose -- that transforms both their lives. Lucy is now pregnant, David burned and bitter. Somehow it seems their love for each other and her love for the land survives. And his need to be a better person is quickened, though his irony and excoriating suspicion of the human heart remain steady.

Like the novel, the film goes where it must, not where the dictates of off-the-rack narrative compel it. Jacobs has made some smart choices, including tucking the novel's last scene into the body of the film, lessening its inevitable bathos if taken straight from page to screen. The anguishing confrontations between David and Lucy, David and the family of the woman he has wronged, David and Lucy's neighbors, and ultimately, between David and the reality of a modern South Africa, are as powerful here as in the book.

When Coetzee's novel was published a decade ago, it caused a firestorm. Here was a fervent anti-apartheid voice seemingly condemning the chaos of the new South Africa. Some called it racist. Some sensed the putrid smell of a dispossessed, middle-aged white man railing against a culture that had no place for him. Others were astonished by its prismatic play of empathy, which seemed to cast small flashes of sympathy into even the most remote corners of the moral landscape. Yet others found it contrived and simplistic.

Cinema remains a simple-minded narrative form. Novels will always be better at nuance and depth. The film "Disgrace" captures about all there is to capture in the novel "Disgrace," which is a remarkable accomplishment for a film, though for some readers, it may make the book feel a bit less interesting in retrospect.

So once again, is it a great movie? Judgment will hinge on the final scenes, which the ill-conceived conventions of newspaper criticism forbid one to discuss. And thus, forbid this critic from answering the most basic questions about the film's worth. But in their stark depiction of new and old, their contrast of two South Africas, two visions of well being and hope, the last scenes frame the whole film. It's worth watching if only to get there to decide for yourself.

Disgrace (120 minutes, at Avalon Theatre) This movie is not rated, but contains powerful violence, nudity and sex.

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