What it's about:Based on the widely acclaimed novel by South African Nobel laureate J.M. Coetzee, Disgrace tells of a white, middle-aged university professor, David Lurie (John Malkovich) who loses his job after his affair with one of his students, Melanie (Antoinette Engel), is revealed. His reputation ruined, Lurie goes into exile and visits his daughter Lucy (Jessica Haines) on her remote farm in the Eastern Cape. There he plans to write an opera on Byron while helping out at the local animal hospital. One day, David and Lucy are brutally attacked by three young men and the incident forces both father and daughter to make difficult decisions about their future.
What we thought:Within the opening five minutes of Disgrace, the movie, David Lurie, one of the most unpleasant, irascible characters in modern fiction, has sex with two beautiful, young women. The first is with his favourite prostitute (played with naked ambition by Natalie Becker) who hints at an early retirement afterwards. With no ready outlet for his impulses, Lurie pounces on his student Melanie like a grizzled lion in the wild who is surprised that his prey doesn't just offer herself to him gleefully. He arrogantly pursues his affair with Melanie, even as she exhibits all the signs of her unease and self-hatred for going along with it. Watching this academically astute man wield his power like an aphrodisiac is no less unsettling than as it unfolds in the pages of Coetzee's novel. He is a man governed by his own ego, growing old without any impetus and finding no real joy in his work. His students stare at him blank-faced during lectures, and, in a country whose post-apartheid landscape favours the young, black and ambitious, there is no place for him. His fall from reverence is not so much a product of his illicit affair, but rather of his reaction to it. During his hearing with university officials, his disdain for the process is unambiguous – he admits to the facts of the case but refuses to apologise or make amends for his actions, and resigns himself to the consequences.The portrayal of Lurie is a masterful feat by Malkovich, who nails the inscrutable characteristics of this divisive character with an economy that is, at first, maddening in its restraint. But it's in the silent moments that his character begins to gain further dimensions to show a man who is truly lost, although he's never going to lay his cards on the table. His scorn for bureaucracy burns as potently as his inability in understanding the world outside of his academic comfort zone. He grows ever-suspicious of Lucy's black farm-hand Petrus (Eriq Ebanouey), with whom she also shares the land and whose ambition smacks of crookedness. This is Africa, after all. Even more galling for him is Lucy's response to her attack and the brand of justice she chooses, which is no justice at all, drawing clear parallels with Lurie's own impotence after his scandal back in Cape Town.Australian director Steve Jacobs' adaptation (from a screenplay by Anna Maria Monticelli) is nothing if not scrupulously faithful to its source material. It's also as difficult, and its unforced pace asks much patience of an audience who may not be familiar with Coetzee's work. What Disgrace lacks in vitality it more than makes up for in powerfully affective performances. Jessica Haines, in her first feature role, is a revelation as Lucy and is Malkovich's equal every step of the way. This is a movie that will undoubtedly reignite the heated discussions about the "new" South Africa and, in particular, it's health ten years after the publication of the novel. Anyone looking for a glowing perspective should perhaps look elsewhere.
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