J. M. Coetzee’s widely acclaimed and awarded 1999 novel Disgrace is a bleak and provocative examination of the uncertain political climate in post Apartheid South Africa. This film adaptation, an Australian co-production, is directed by Steve Jacobs and written by Anna Maria Monticelli (who previously worked together on La spagnola, 2001) and it has already been generally praised for its faithfulness to the original book. Indeed, this is a powerful film that explores issues of race, gender, sexuality and power in order to make a very bleak commentary on the state of things in South Africa. The film opens with an extended prologue where English professor David Lurie is asked to resign after he seduces one of his students. Lurie takes refuge on the farm his daughter owns but his entire attitude towards life is turned in on itself after he and his daughter are brutally assaulted.
John Malkovich has in recent times come dangerously close to self-parody but as David Lurie he delivers one of the finest performances of his career. It is an extremely challenging character because even though David is not a likeable man, he still must evoke our sympathy and understanding. He is predatory, overly cynical and self-absorbed but he does not deserve what happens to him and his daughter Lucy, played brilliant by newcomer Jessica Haines. Disgrace also benefits from the talent working on it from behind the camera as the use of music and editing gives the film a sort of lyrical flow that transports you into every scene. The cinematography also captures the locations perfectly and the incredible use of natural light in this film creates an amazingly evocative sense of the South African countryside.
Disgrace is a meditation on the inevitability of death and the destructive power of violence. It examines the shifts in power that are occurring in South Africa on both a political level and on a personal level. Racial tensions and sexual conflicts are interwoven throughout the narrative of this story and account for a significant degree of its impact. However, there is something incredibly infuriating about how the film develops and, in particular, the way Lucy responds to what has happened to her. For all his many faults David’s reactions to what has happened to him and Lucy become the most understandable and recognisable reactions and yet the narrative seems to be strongly siding against him.
It is most likely that such a reaction of frustration from the audience is exactly what is intended. Also, the discordant tone that Disgrace leaves you with will appeal to some viewers more than others. Disgrace doesn’t leave you feeling any tangible emotion such as anger, sorrow or discomfort but it does leave you with a strong sense of unease. It is as if you’ve got a bad taste in your mouth that you just can’t identify and therefore remedy.