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Cry Thraldom

MOVIE REVIEW
Disgrace (2008)

Disgrace,post attack,16-3 058
Paladin

While most works of literature and cinema centered on South Africa have focused on the experience of Apartheid, Nobel Laureate J. M. Coetzee’s “Disgrace” — a Booker Prize winning novel published in 1999 — broke from that trend. An urgent piece of contemporary fiction that serves as a warning against false complacency in the post-Apartheid era, it reveals a country still torn at its roots despite the progress that had occurred earlier in the decade.

The elaborate national allegory Mr. Coetzee concocted has been brought to the screen by director Steve Jacobs and screenwriter Anna-Maria Monticelli in their eponymous cinematic adaptation. While the fidelity of their achievement is best left to those well acquainted with Mr. Coetzee’s work (I haven’t read it), the film struggles in its attempt to balance the thought-provoking overtones with the human drama at its core. The literalizing nature of the filmic medium lends too much concrete credence to what may, as written on the page, have been a meaningful philosophical abstraction.

Thus, the complex racial politics and combustible underlying tension that comprise the story of university professor David Lurie (John Malkovich), who resigns from his post after an affair with a student and travels to the Eastern Cape to live on the remote farm run by his daughter (Jessica Haines), come across as muddled distractions forced upon the narrative. The film is structured awkwardly, with the rain-driven urban-set scenes of the first half seeming wholly disconnected from the barren primal nature of the second half, and the screenplay trades in choppy disparate dramatics that hamper the seamless forward progression of David’s story.

For viewers without Mr. Coetzee’s inherent personal understanding of the specifics of the cultural zeitgeist and lingering historical memory in present day South Africa, it becomes a struggle to relate to the characters. The dilemmas they face and their strategies for confronting them come across impossibly off-putting and foreign, and the picture rarely serves as more than an intriguing curiosity.

DISGRACE

Opens on Sept. 18 in New York, on Sept. 25 in Los Angeles and on Dec. 4 in Britain.

Directed by Steve Jacobs; written by Anna-Maria Monticelli, based on the novel by J. M. Coetzee; director of photography, Steve Arnold; edited by Alexandre De Franceschi; music by Antony Partos and Graeme Koehne; production designers, Mike Berg and Annie Beauchamp; produced by Ms. Monticelli, Emile Sherman and Mr. Jacobs; released by Paladin (United States) and ICA Films (Britain). Running time: 2 hours. This film is not rated by M.P.A.A. and rated 15 by B.B.F.C.

WITH: John Malkovich (Professor David Lurie), Jessica Haines (Lucy), Eriq Ebouaney (Petrus), Fiona Press (Bev Shaw), Antoinette Engel (Melanie Isaacs), David Dennis (Mr. Isaacs) and Charles Tertiens (Ryan).

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