Film review – Disgrace (2008)

David Lurie (John Malkovich)
David Lurie (John Malkovich)

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.

Lucy (Jessica Haines)
Lucy (Jessica Haines)

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.

© Thomas Caldwell, 2009

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  1. I had some similar reactions, Thomas, though I left the cinema feeling a bit frustrated. I agree that the music, the cinematography and performances are all good. I think you’re right that the frustration is intended, but it divorced me emotionally from the story. We only see the women (particularly the student and the daughter) from Lurie’s perspective without sufficient understanding of their motivations, and actually come to view them as cold bitches – well, that was my reaction. I suspect that what worked in the acclaimed book doesn’t translate so well to screen. If I had to give the film a score, it’d be around 3-3.5 stars out of 5.

  2. Hey Thomas, I’d give it a similar score to both you and Paul, maybe 4 stars. It’s a great role for Malkovich and a complex character who we never really understand completely; he seems to forever seperate himself from the rest of the world in some way, maintaining that distance he can never reduce (or has the desire too, a kind of intellectual aloofness).

    The cinematography was really exceptional, even for many internal scenes. Haines was superb too though many people, especially women, will find her motivations hard to stomach.

  3. Hi Paul and David.

    I must admit I’m still wrestling with how I feel about this film. I really, really liked the depiction of Lurie’s relationship with the student as something that was predatory and borderline rape. He was in a position of power and took advantage of somebody who was clearly not happy about what was happening but too frightened to say no. That aspect of the film I found really strong.

    I also really liked the character of Lucy but her response, as I think we all agree, is maddening. However, upon further reflection, I think she very much functions as the voice of the younger generation (or ‘new’ South Africans) who wants to call a stop to the endless pursuit of revenge for past wrongs. I still have a few concerns that this voice of forgiveness/reconciliation was so extreme and seen as something so markedly distinct from the Lurie character (who was older, straight and male by comparison) but I’m increasingly forming a better appreciation for the message in this film.

    I’m not in a hurry to see this film again but I hope to do so again one day and I suspect that a second viewing may boost my rating up to a 4. If nothing else, not many films generate such a level of intelligent conversation as this one has.

  4. Thomas, I’ve enjoyed reading some of the intelligent conversation that’s been floating around about the film, and it has helped me to appreciate the film more. But I find it all a bit empty because its largely intellectual without a strong emotional basis, if you get what I mean.

  5. Paul – I completely get what you mean and I think you have identified the essential flaw in this film. It’s a “worthy” and “important” film but lacks a bit of soul.

    It will no doubt soon appear on secondary school Film as Text lists all over the country!

  6. It will no doubt soon appear on secondary school Film as Text lists all over the country!

    Hehe, yeah probably. I think Lurie’s relationship with his daughter as a metaphor for the greater political situation in South Africa may work well in literature, but is a bit.. well, a bit too literary. I can’t quite place my finger on it; maybe it’s too didactic for cinema.

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