Tuesday, June 09, 2009


Disgrace (Steve Jacobs, Australia/South Africa, 2008)
Steve Jacobs' first film, La Spagnola, was an excellent debut that had the great misfortune of opening on September 11, 2001 and consequently didn’t get the exposure it deserved. It’s about a Spanish woman’s post-war migrant experience in Australia and is beautifully filmed. It is full of drama, passion and interspersed with comic moments that make it a largely undiscovered gem.

Disgrace represents a much more ambitious project by Jacobs. It’s an Australian-South African co-production, based on the Booker Prize-winning novel of the same title by the esteemed former South African (and now South Australian) writer, J.M. Coetzee. It is set in South Africa and stars John Malkovich as David Lurie, a Cape Town university professor of poetry. Like Ben Kingsley's character in Elegy, Lurie is a sexual predator who targets his female students.

That’s about the only comparison I would make with Elegy. Malkovich’s performance is perhaps his best in several years. He performs as an actor rather than the Malkovich stereotype we’ve come to accept (and sometimes hate). There’s none of that psychopathic screaming, for example, even though he plays a not particularly endearing character. In fact, the emotional baggage we may carry for Malkovich works in his favour, with the restraint adding a new-found nuance to his acting.

The uniting element between Jacobs’ films is a preoccupation with a country’s culture, albeit from different perspectives. La Spagnola depicts the difficulties of a Spanish immigrant, who gravitates towards the local Italian community. She is an outsider to both the Australian and immigrant communities. In Disgrace, Lurie's sexual indiscretions find him forced to resign from his long-held university position. He takes up residence in self-imposed exile with Lucy, his lesbian daughter on her remote rural farm. Here, Lurie finds himself in a totally different culture, one he struggles to come to terms with because of the violent local politics.

I haven’t read Coetzee’s book, so I don’t know how faithful to its source material the film is. But it feels weighed down, very much like a book-to-screen translation. Like a novel, the film withholds information. In a book, the writer completely controls the flow of information with words. In the film, various nuances were lost on me and I failed to comprehend gaps in information.

Generally, I’m all for not having narrative fully expounded. Imagination and deduction can be powerfully utilised in cinematic story-telling. The film does respect an audience’s intelligence in not spoon-feeding every little detail, but it also doesn’t convey details that may be required. It felt like it was emulating the source material’s structure without sufficient adaptation. On the plus side, the film leaves room for ambiguity and no doubt there will be countless debates over the motivations of different characters.

The story is largely concerned with Lurie’s relationships with women – in particular Melanie, the student he seduces, and his daughter Lucy, with whom he has a strained relationship. Jacobs’ exploration of these relationships remains cold and distant. We never see any warmth, affection or meaningful dialogue between Lurie and the women in his life (and this is the exact opposite of La Spagnola). These two women remain angry and we are never privy to their internalisations. Emotionally, it has the effect of distancing us from the characters. We only have Lurie’s misogynistic perspective, and he’s not particularly insightful or redeeming a character.

I felt Lucy’s lesbianism is largely inconsequential to the story and wonder whether this aspect of her life needed to be included. I acknowledge that her orientation is relevant in some respects, but it’s an element of the story that seems under-developed.

It will be interesting to see how Disgrace is received by both critics and audiences. I think most will be more impressed by it than I was. It should appeal to the same demographic that embraced I Have Always Loved You, for example. I suspect it will also appeal to those who have read the book and have more of an understanding of what is happening in the background, both in terms of the politics and the women's internalisations.

It is nice to see the film adding diversity to the year's local films, so maybe 2009 will be a turning point for the Australian industry. For me, though, this film doesn’t match some of the year’s stronger contenders.

Disgrace opens in cinemas on 18 June.

Cinema Nova is hosting an advance screening on Sunday 14 June at 5pm, followed by an impressive line-up for a panel discussion: Which is better? The book or the film? From Nova:
To celebrate the release of the film adaptation of J. M. Coetzee’s Booker Prize winning novel DISGRACE, starring John Malkovich, Cinema Nova in partnership with Readings are proudly present the first in an ongoing series of discussions to try and settle the age-old dinner party dispute: WHICH IS BETTER? THE BOOK OR THE MOVIE?

Melbourne’s best and brightest film, publishing and arts identities will join the panel and try to settle the score.

Elliot Perlman is a barrister and award-winning writer who adapted his own book, THREE DOLLARS, for Robert Connolly’s drama starring David Wenham.

Sue Maslin is the multi-award winning producer of Japanese Story and the executive producer of Irresistible starring Sam Neill, Emily Blunt and Susan Sarandon.

Catherine Deveny is a controversial social commentator for The Age, was named amongst the 100 Most Influential Melbournians and co-wrote the 2005 AFI awards with Russell Crowe.

Tom Ryan has been the film critic for The Sunday Age in Melbourne since 1989. A film lecturer in Australia and the UK, he has also contributed to several international film magazines.

Peter Rose is the editor of Australian Book Review. He was a publisher at Oxford University Press and is author the much loved memoir Rose Boys.

To be moderated by Michael Veitch a performer, broadcaster and writer, Michael started his career in TV comedy on legendary shows such as The D-Generation and Fast Forward. Born into a family of journalists, he has written as a theatre and literary critic for The Age, Australian and Herald-Sun newspapers. Michael is the host of ABC’s vastly popular Sunday Arts program.


Buy the book before the event! 10% discount for in-store purchases of DISGRACE (Conditions: only at Readings Carlton, with a valid cinema ticket from the screening)

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