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Review: 'Disgrace'

A spare, chilling post-apartheid tale of retribution that morphs into something more complex.

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John Malkovich and Jessica Haines in DISGRACE, a film set in South Africa.

Courtesy of Paladin

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In "Disgrace," the uneven but powerful new film based on the celebrated J.M. Coetzee novel, we are brought face to face with the phlegmatic, imperious David Lurie (John Malkovich), who teaches a course in Romantic poetry at a university in Cape Town, South Africa, and fancies himself something of a romantic as well. Others might more accurately label him a lech.

When he seduces an attractive mixed-race student, Melanie Isaacs (Antoinette Engel), and pursues her against her will, word gets out. Facing the university disciplinary committee, he refuses both to defend himself or formally apologize. Suddenly, and not altogether to his chagrin, his teaching career is over. Retreating to the vast, panoramic countryside and the farm occupied by his daughter Lucy (Jessica Haines), he expects the idyllic and ends up confronting fresh horrors. Three young black men invade the farm, viciously attack David, and rape Lucy (which we are spared from witnessing).

Like Coetzee's Booker Prize-winning 1999 novel, the film has a chilling spareness. The husband-wife team of director Steve Jacobs and screenwriter Anna-Maria Monticelli has been remarkably faithful not only to the novel's narrative but also to its tone of omnipresent dread. What at first seems like a metaphorical parable about racial retribution in post-apartheid South Africa mutates, inexorably, into something far more complicated. The power of the film, as with the novel, is that it can't be buttonholed ideologically.

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