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Sunday, 24 January 2010

Review: Disgrace, dir Steve Jacobs (2008)

This movie is a rare thing: an adaptation of a great novel that is, itself, great fun to watch. Writer Anna Maria Monticelli reportedly had full cooperation from novelist J.M. Coetzee. It shows in the result, but this is more than just a faithful rendition of a modern classic.

David Lurie (John Malkovich) is a 52-year-old English professor specialising in the Romantic poets. He has one child, Lucy (Jessica Haines), but is now separated. One bright spring day he invites a student of his, Melanie (Antoinette Engel), for a drink. They begin a - rather sordid - affair until, one day, Melanie does not show up for her exam.

She has taken sleeping pills and overdosed. Her family and the faculty rally round and Lurie is expelled from the system in disgrace. Sobered, he gets in his car and heads out into the wastes of the South African hinterland to visit Lucy.

But things turn out differently to what he anticipated when three boys rape Lucy and rob both him and her.

The politics of life on the land, where you are forced to rely on your neighbour, are different from those that apply in the city, where Lurie taught at university. It turns out that one of the boys involved is the son-in-law of Petrus (Eric Ebouaney) - Lucy's erstwhile farmhand and now her new partner in the agricultural business.

Lurie confronts Petrus on several occasions in the film, but the logic of life here is very different to that which held true in the bosom of the crowd. Family ties are everything. "I will marry Lucy," says Petrus as he shovels grout into the window frame of the house he is building in front of a disbelieving Lurie.

Lucy then coldheartedly runs through a catalogue of what she's prepared to tolerate in order to remain in the country. It's clear that she can't survive alone. With Petrus to shield her from the routine shocks of her chosen, hard life, she may manage.

Lurie is also dismayed to discover that Lucy intends to keep the child who is the offspring of one of the boys who raped her.

Undaunted, Lurie helps out at a local animal shelter, where he begins an affair with the middle-aged proprietress, Bev Shaw (Fiona Press).

In the novel this scene seemed a lot more sordid than it does here, where the physicality of the buxom Press mitigates against pathos. In fact, Lurie's downfall seems less dramatic in the movie in general. From a professor to a man filling an incinerator with the dead bodies of euthenised dogs seems a long way but, here, it seems to be just part of one of those natural turns that life takes from time to time.

Jacobs and Monticelli also introduce us to the beautiful countryside of South Africa, a place strewn with granite boulders and riven by the high backs of granite hills. The long, lonely roads of the landscape resemble those of Australia, which gives the film a familiar look.

What is different in South Africa is the level of security everyone lives under. Auto-release gates are de rigeur for Cape Town houses, and barbed wire is not unusual. Keeping large dogs for protection appears to be a minimum requirement in this country, where post-apartheid lawlessness has made people turn into brittle paranoids.

But what is the movie 'about'?

We are invited here, as in the novel, to draw a moral equivalence between Lucy's rape and Lurie's taking advantage of Melanie. Rather than bottles of wine and expensive lunches by the water, there is a rough, forced entry. But what matters, it seems, is the lack of consideration, the lack of personal accountability.

Society is only as safe as the individual makes it.

Where, on the one hand, Lurie espouses giving into one's desires - as a scholar of the Romantics he has the lines down pat - rather than living in self-censoring fear, on the other sit the wild boys who take advantage of Lucy's single state.

Marked differences in the domestic politics of the country and city underly the validity of the equivalence. Out there, things are different. Out there, you need protection. Out there, a single woman becomes a target for routine violence. In here, an ageing Don Juan merely forces himself upon a young student in a moment of tawdry complacency.

Nevertheless, Melanie suffers. That she does so with such understated efficiency, on the screen, is a testament to the powers of those who developed the movie and brought it to life. The movie is therefore highly recommended.

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