Tuesday, 23 February 2010

Not Disgraceful At All.

J.M. Coetzee was the first author to win the Booker prize twice (a feat only matched by fellow Australian [as Coetzee has been an Australian citizen for a while now] Peter Carey), first for Life & Times of Michael K in 1983, and subsequently for Disgrace, in 1999. This second Booker winner is also the second of his novels to be turned into a theatrical feature, after In The Heart Of The Country was turned into Dust in 1985. 

Interestingly, Disgrace is regarded as Australian due to financing and production reasons despite starring no Australians and being shot in South Africa. Curiously, the director, Steve Jacobs, was born in the States (though now resides in Australia) and the writer, Anna Maria Monticelli, was born in Morocco, though also resides in Australia. At least the majority of the rest of the key crew were Australian, otherwise it would come across a bit strange...

David Lurie (John Malkovich) is a professor at a university in Cape Town. Apparently completely lacking any further passion for what he is doing, he forces an affair with a student, Soraya (Natalie Becker.) She is none too thrilled about the idea, and eventually her cousin appears at the university and the seduction and manipulation is made public, along with the fact that Lurie passed her for an exam she did not sit. Having to answer to these allegations, Lurie pronounces himself guilty, refusing to play the game of going through the motions, before also refusing to make public remonstrations of his remorse. Instead, he ups and leaves for the farm owned by his lesbian daughter Lucy (Jessica Haines), finding her there newly alone after the breakup of her relationship, apparently watched over by her black farmhand and co-manager Petrus (Eriq Ebouaney.)

Not long after his arrival, a gang of youths force themselves into the house under false pretences, locking Lurie in the bathroom as Lucy is raped by each of them in turn. Lurie is set on fire as they leave. The crime is horrific, though that done to Lucy is recognised by her father as definitely the worst. He immediately suspects Petrus has something to do with it, and at a celebration of Petrus' marriage he spots one of the youths responsible. Petrus assures him that what the boy did was a mistake, and that he is only a boy, and Lucy seems all too happy to accept this, despite Lurie's protestations. In fact, Lucy simply wants to get on with her life, forget what has happened - but then she discovers she is pregnant.

The novel is an incredible work of fiction, truly spectacular, moving, damning, terrifying. The film falls short, but not horrendously. Malkovich is terrific as the almost entirely unlikeable (except for his feelings for his daughter) professor, who feels that he knows everything whilst showing himself up to know very little about the real world outside his cloistered university life. Haines, in her debut feature, is superb, showing a non-fussy pragmatism about what needs to be done when she refuses intimidation and wants little more than to get on with the life she has been slowly building herself.

Jacobs handles the film well without resorting to so much of the cliched romantacism of the country that so many directors fall prey to outside of urban areas. The score by Antony Partos is beautiful, and Steve Arnold lenses simply, to serve the story. It's a solid attempt at an adaptation that was waiting to happen, but I'm not entirely sure it ever should have. The book stands so perfectly on its own - I think the greatest service the film could have had would be to introduce the book to a new audience. Unfortunately, the film was all but ignored, everywhere, despite its award-winning appearance at Toronto in 2008. I'm not sure why it was categorically shafted by everyone, because it is a much better film than that. It's not a masterpiece, not even close, but it's definitely better than a whole lot of work that gains much more recognition. 3.5 stars.

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