Thursday, July 9, 2009

Disgrace: bleak morality tale



Both J.M. Coetzee’s novel and its film adaptation leave their audience wanting more answers. Disgrace is a confronting and brutal tale of life in modern South Africa. The message is clear. There are no simple solutions.

Literary academic David Lurie’s admiration of Byron seems to have formed his personal morality and his professional ethics.

His amorality leads to a doomed relationship that precipitates both work and identity crises. His alienation from university colleagues and students results in a refusal to defend his reputation or his professorial position.

He is not the victim of an old fool’s infatuation but the arrogance of a serial Casanova. He quotes William Blake as his sole defence, "Sooner strangle an infant in its cradle than nurse unacted desires." His retreat to his daughter’s remote farm entangles their individual problems in the realities of life in the post apartheid era.

Director Steve Jacobs and screenwriter Anna Maria Monticelli continue their professional and personal partnership as co-producers. Their earlier collaboration on La spagnola in 2001 was another Australian production that is a minor gem.

John Malkovich’s ability to convey complete self absorption and intense self doubt without dialogue make him an excellent choice for David. Relative newcomer Jessica Haines plays his daughter Lucy. Hers is a competent and moving performance. Eriq Ebouaney strikes the right tone in a difficult role as Petrus, the black farmer and her co-landholder.

Disgrace is an adaptation that more than does justice to the novel. Like the book, it does not sensationalise or over-dramatise this extremely difficult story. I had misgivings before the screening because the novel seemed so bleak. Lucy’s compromise and David’s acceptance of her decision offer such slim hope.

We are left with little doubt that this is an allegory for the issues facing modern multi-racial South Africa. Yet it is at the personal level that the film is most powerful.



(It is disappointing that the official website is not yet online and that the IMDb has little detail. A synopsis and trailer are available through Icon Movies or click on the image above.)
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