Saturday, September 6, 2008

Telling Tales Out of School. . .

Ah, it's September - the start of a new school year and oddly enough, professors have featured as the main character in the last three films I've seen (all of which I highly recommend - two are based on bestselling novels).

I've just come back from seeing the world premiere at the Toronto Film Festival of the Australian adaptation of Disgrace, directed by Steve Jacobs. It's based of course on J.M. Coetzee's incredibly powerful Booker-winning novel, which I love - even though it is one of the most disturbing books I've ever read. And the film didn't disappoint. It's no easier to watch than to read it, but the film is very respectful of the novel and stays fairly close to its narrative structure. David Lurie is a university professor in Cape Town who is forced to resign after having an affair with one of his students. He goes to visit his daughter Lucy who lives alone in an isolated farmhouse where she grows vegetables and runs a kennel. Following a horrific act of violence, David is forced to re-examine not only his relationship with his daughter but also with his country and the changes since apartheid. Disgrace brutally and viscerally challenges ideas of gender and racial politics, and its possible solutions, which can appear simultaneously shocking and heartbreaking. John Malkovich plays David and is excellent at progressing from arched arrogance to broken acceptance. But it's Jessica Haines as Lucy who gives the grittiest performance. She's tough and vulnerable and utterly believable when she has to make the difficult and complicated decisions about her future. I really hope Disgrace gets wide distribution and is screened at lots of North American theatres. It's a gutsy film and while it's difficult to "enjoy", it certainly leaves you with lots to think about.

Elegy is based on Philip Roth's novel The Dying Animal - one of a series of novels featuring his recurring English professor David Kepesh, here played by the amazing Ben Kingsley. Kepesh has started yet another affair with one of his students, the beautiful Consuela, played by Penelope Cruz. But David is becoming ever more conscious of his age 9and the age gap) and impending mortality along with pride and vanity gets in the way of the relationship. Then Conseula has to face some personal challenges and has only him to turn to for help. This movie really works due to its excellent casting, unlike say, other Roth offerings (The Human Stain comes to mind - what were they thinking casting Nicole Kidman in that one?). Kingsley is terrific in the role - all the inner turmoil and doubt convincingly played out on his face. One can almost feel sorry for the guy. Patricia Clarkson is also wonderful as David's brash and sexy and needy mistress. You can see the trailer here.

Finally if you want a movie where the professor works against stereotype and actually doesn't behave badly or bonk a student, check out The Visitor, written and directed by Tom McCarthy and starring Richard Jenkins. A tiny gem of a film about a lonely Connecticut professor still mourning the death of his wife, who forms an unusual friendship with two illegal immigrants that he finds living in his New York apartment. This film is beautifully acted and contains some very touching and funny moments amidst the sadness. And it has a wonderful soundtrack to boot.
Who knew that professors led such interesting lives away from their lecturns?

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