Disgrace

Starring: Starring: John Malkovich, Jessica Haines, Eriq Ebouaney, and Antoinette Engel. Directed by Steve Jacobs
118 min
Rating: Rated M (Violence, sex scenes, mature scenes, and coarse language)

This is the film adaptation of the 1999 Booker Prize winning novel of the same name by J. M. Coetzee, who won the 2003 Nobel Prize in Literature. The film of the novel won the International Critics’ Award at the Toronto Film Festival in 2008.

The film closely follows the book and tells the story of David Lurie, a Professor in  Communications at a University in post-Apartheid South Africa. He takes sexual advantage of one of his young students (Antoinette Engel) and he is disgraced. His defiance about his behaviour is absolute, and totally without regret. Following his dismissal from the University, he goes to the farm of his daughter Lucy (Jessica Haines) in the Eastern Cape of South Africa. The politics of the country are radically shifting and any attempt to find harmony in his daughter’s house is affected not only by his past relationship with her, but also by the political and physical events which envelop them both. Lucy is raped and finds herself with child and Lurie is brutally assaulted, following an attack on the farm by three black youths. They are both physically and emotionally broken by the assault. The attack is meant to portray that those who are disgraced are also those who are punished and forced to bear the consequences. Lucy and Lurie become victims, and Lurie pays dearly for his ruin.

Lurie is a racist as well as a predator. The film is as much about the break-down of a flawed human being and the challenges of seeking forgiveness and finding redemption, as it is about a culture or a society undergoing change. Lurie’s past pursues him relentlessly, and his daughter is drawn into the abyss, and it is a film that vividly displays the changing face of South Africa in the context of deep exploration of a troubled person’s soul. Against the background of shifting relations between blacks and whites in South Africa, the assault on Lurie and his daughter causes a subtle reversal of roles. Lurie’s past relationship with Lucy is upturned by the attack. Lucy decides to keep the child and accepts being a mother in an act of resignation to the culture of which she is a part. She decides to marry into the extended family of the person who raped her, but does this ambiguously to protect her rights, and to escape future violence.  Her decision is a compromise of personal and cultural commitment. For Lurie, there is also pain, and the film becomes a story of a selfish and impulsive individual, who finds the strength to reach out and give to his own child, while not being able to fully understand the choice she has made.

John Malkovich is an unusual actor, and he has the capacity to combine quirkiness and deep seriousness. Here, the role is perfect for him, and he gives an outstanding portrayal of the narcissistic and pleasure-seeking Lurie, who has condemned himself to solitude. Newcomer, Jessica Haines is excellent as Lucy who lives on the cusp of a culture she refuses to reject. There are very strong performances by others, including Eriq Ebouaney as Petrus, who protects Lucy and the rapist in his family at the same time. In the film, there is a reversal of role from the oppressor to the oppressed, and our sympathies are strained by growing feelings for Lurie’s plight, when his “disgraceful” behaviour helped to begin it all. 

This is a complicated movie, based on a tough book, and it is a focused and intense film that is totally absorbing. It gains considerable power through the way it handles national and personal conflicts involving class, race, identity, and sex, with more than a moderate dose of animal cruelty thrown into the mix. The South African locations are captured wonderfully by cinematographer, Steve Arnold, and the direction by Steve Jacobs is sensitive and faithful to Coetzee’s intent.

The film tries to integrate its various elements into a meaningful whole, and it attempts to do that by sustaining the personal tragedies that envelop both Lurie and Lucy. The strong performances by Malkovich and Haines, aided by the intelligent direction of Steve Jacobs, help substantially (though not completely) to bring the threads together. The novel had subtle layers weaving through its story-line, and the film has them too. The film as a whole is a powerful tribute to national disgrace, and its thought-provoking wisdom helps mitigate the impact of a bleak underlying despair that has cultural, as well as profoundly personal and human implications for us all.

Icon Entertainment Films. Out June 25, 2009.


Peter W. Sheehan is associate of the Australian Catholic Office for Film and Broadcasting.

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