There have probably been enough column inches dedicated to film adaptations of literary classics to rival the word counts of War And Peace, Atlas Shrugged and Clarissa combined. And now, into the arena steps Disgrace, the silver screen version of the 1999 Booker Prize winning novel by Nobel Laureate JM Coetzee. Having not read the book, I’m entirely incapable of critiquing director Steve Jacobs and writer/producer Anna Maria Monticelli’s efforts in this area, but even without a preconceived awareness of the property, it seems that something is missing.
John Malkovich stars as David Lurie, a professor of English Literature at a university in Cape Town, South Africa. Spending days teaching Romantic Poetry to apathetic youngsters, Lurie spends his evenings courting prostitutes, until a chance encounter with a female student, Melanie (Antoinette Engel), plants the seed for an aggressive, obsessive, one-sided affair. Before long, rumours run rampant and the professor is publicly disgraced, and eventually forced to offer his resignation from the university.
This would be more than enough material for a compelling narrative, but this is a mere introductory act; after finding a new lease of life, and a sense of freedom from responsibility after losing his job, Lurie moves out to the country, to visit his daughter Lucy (Jessica Haines), who has cultivated a life for herself as a farmer and kennel owner in the predominantly black rural community.
Scenes are short and elliptical, giving neither the characters nor the narrative much traction. Melanie is a complete cipher. Lurie fares better, almost solely because of his perspective being the primary focus of the film, but Malkovich’s awkward, internalised performance (which plays like a tongue-tied, hobbling version of James Mason as Humbert Humbert in Lolita) and the minimal, stripped-bare script give little away. This makes the whole proceedings feel a little insubstantial, like all its stuffing has been sucked out.
That isn’t to suggest that Disgrace is a shallow film. In fact, it is overflowing with socio-political and philosophical issues, and proudly displays, in magnificently heavy-handed fashion, the twists and turns of its depths, both metaphorical and allegorical.
Unsurprisingly, the South Africa of Disgrace is a post-apartheid landscape, with certain narrative tendencies elevated to symbolic levels. Lucy shares her land with Petrus (Eriq Ebouaney), an ambitious black gentleman who sets off unfounded bouts of paranoia in Lurie. This developing relationship, with its back-and-forth of prejudice, predictable violence, and relenting compromise, works to create a complicated racial discourse (which, the production notes claims represents ‘a new South Africa’).
This alone is worthy of note, but Disgrace also exhibits further thematic content, with nods towards notions of responsibility, penance and forgiveness. These are tackled with insight, and a reluctance for easy conclusions, yet the writing feels clunky, and the film is mostly suffocated by this (wholly literary) weight.
A perfect example involves Lucy, effectively an avatar for the long-suffering woman in society. She works hard and is openly kind and welcoming to Petrus (no doubt, a symbol for enterprising post-Apartheid black culture); for her troubles, she is raped and left bearing a child, and is therefore left mostly powerless.
However, in the face of Lurie’s calls for justice, she is philosophical, spitting back curt little theses on women, race and sexual assault in the history of white culture, surmising that the romantic conquests of Byron, and latter-day lovers like Lurie, are no different from the crimes committed in South Africa.
It is wholly odd, considering the production’s rooting of the narrative in mostly realistic photography and location work, to hear such staid dialogue. I would hazard to assume that this is a side-effect of the book-film transplant, as the navigation between narrative, character and theme is something that can be more easily – and gracefully – achieved in the form of a short novel.
Unfortunately, as a film, Disgrace offers the viewer little but laboured mental masturbation.