“For a man of his age, fifty-two, divorced, he has, to his mind, solved the problem of sex rather well,” J.M. Coetzee’s Booker Prize-winning novel “Disgrace” begins.
But of course, David Lurie hasn’t solved it at all, not in his own life or in his thoughts on the lives of others. His hubris will destroy his career but re-connect him with his daughter — and then shatter that relationship, too.
The Nobel Prize laureate’s cutting novel of sex and power in post-apartheid South Africa has been brought to the big screen with all of the loneliness and most of the intelligence of the novel intact. John Malkovich is David, a Cape Town professor whose passion for the Romantic poets has become obsolete in a forward-looking age and belies his own safely predictable love life, which consists of a weekly appointment with a prostitute. That passionless routine is broken when he comes across one of his students one night walking home. Melanie (Antoinette Engel) was memorable in class only for her looks, but that’s enough to make David come undone. He invites her back to his place, where he declares she must spend the night because female beauty is a gift one can’t keep to oneself — or just one man.
The pair begin an affair, though Melanie doesn’t seem particularly interested. David’s willful ignorance of this fact leads to a complaint, an inquiry and finally a dismissal.
He finds refuge on his daughter’s farm. Lucy’s lover, a woman, has left, but the father and daughter (Jessica Haines) aren’t alone. There are the dogs Lucy boards to make more money, and there’s Petrus (Eriq Ebouaney), an African who’s gone from handyman to co-proprietor. In a power shift that parallels the larger one in the country, Lucy will find her own status change after a devastating episode of violence whose repercussions neither Lurie will realize for some time.
Miss Haines might have the most difficult role of the film, portraying a woman whose response to a tragedy is inexplicable to her father. This is her first film, but she communicates emotions as if it’s her 50th, and she’s completely comfortable playing to the veteran. This is Mr. Malkovich’s most intense lead role in some time, and he plays it with a single-mindedness that’s compelling.
Film adaptations of novels are almost never as good as the originals; too much is lost along with the language. Screenwriter Anna Maria Monticelli has kept as much of the deliberate dialogue as she could, but what makes the film really interesting is the way in which it is carefully choreographed by her husband, director Steve Jacobs. His spare style is a fitting cinematic counterpart to Mr. Coetzee’s lean prose.
This is rather a faithful adaptation — except for the ending, in which a scene has been moved to offer the hope that seems nearly absent from the novel. Mr. Coetzee’s ending is more devastating, but the cinema doesn’t do devastating as well as the novel.
RATING: Not rated (some nudity and adult themes)
CREDITS: Directed by Steve Jacobs. Written by Anna Maria Monticelli based on the novel by J.M. Coetzee.
RUNNING TIME: 120 minutes
MAXIMUM RATING: FOUR STARS