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Movie Review

Disgrace

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Based on J.M. Coetzee's complex novel, "Disgrace" explores the long shadow cast by apartheid and the evolving dynamics between oppressed and oppressor in contemporary South Africa. Gender politics come into play, as well. Directed by Steve Jacobs, the film recounts what happens when David Lurie (John Malkovich), a professor of Romantic literature at a South African university, has an affair with a female student of mixed race, resulting in a scandal and the loss of his job. He retreats to a remote, impoverished farm where his daughter Lucy (Jessica Haines) seems to live a free-spirited, uncomplicated life tending to her garden and her beloved dogs. The surface calm of their lives is shattered when three young black thugs violently assault them, raping Lucy, burning the professor, and killing all the animals. In the wake of the attack, their lives and assumptions are forever changed.

The film is difficult to watch but certainly not dull, and the performances are, for the most part, fine. When they fall short, it's not the fault of the actors but of the writing and direction. Malkovich evokes a highly intelligent, multishaded figure devoid of empathy for others and, at the same time, totally alone. He is at once brittle and pathetic and always convinced he's intellectually superior to everyone else. He also has no doubt about the morality of his position, at least initially. His transformation, however, is unconvincing. Similarly, newcomer Haines inhabits the ambivalent Lucy as well as any actor could, but her actions at the end of the film are not plausible either. Also a tad off base is Antoinette Engel as the sexually harassed student whom one suspects doesn't feel all that harassed. On the other hand, Eriq Ebouaney is top-notch as Lucy's black, land-owning neighbor, who knows the rapists are evil yet is determined to protect them. He also wants to do what's best for Lucy because she is his friend. It's a subtle interpretation.

But the overriding problem is the film's implication that Lurie is really not all that different from the three cretins who brutalize Lucy and him. Lurie is creepy and arrogant, but there is no parallel, the tragic politics of South Africa notwithstanding.

Although the novel is nuanced and thought-provoking, regrettably the film is not.

Genre: Drama
Director: Steve Jacobs
Writer: Anna Maria Monticelli
Starring: John Malkovich, Jessica Haines, Antoinette Engel, Eriq Ebouaney

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