Whatever happened to the film adaptation of J. M. Coetzee’s stunning novel Disgrace, starring John Malkovich? If, like me, you’ve been under the spell of this book, you may have been wondering this too. We heard about the film when it was in production, and word began to spread over a year ago that the much-awaited film was playing festivals, but it was in and out of New York City and Washington DC theaters before anybody I know had a chance to see it. It didn’t get terrible reviews; it just didn’t get much of a release at all. Then, two days ago, I suddenly spotted the title on a long list of Time Warner Cable “Movies on Demand” on my TV, hiding unceremoniously between Did You Hear About The Morgans? and Easter Bunny Kill Kill!.
I pressed a button to magically pay $4.99, and there I was catching a private viewing of the much-anticipated and mysteriously vanished film in my own living room.
My first concern, as the movie began, was whether or not John Malkovich would ham it up so badly that Coetzee’s subtle narrative wouldn’t stand a chance. I wondered if Malkovich had been chosen for the part of David Lurie (the South African poetry professor who is exiled from Cape Town University for having sex with a student) because he looks so much like J. M. Coetzee. This is not a good reason for a casting choice, especially since Malkovich is a “method actor” who relies heavily on a few signature mannerisms — the stony smirk, the simpering intonation — that do not match my vision of Coetzee’s character at all.
In fact, Malkovich does “play Malkovich” during the first half of the film in which his character loses his regular Thursday prostitute, takes advantage of a young female student, is caught and disgraced and leaves Cape Town to join his daughter on a remote farm in the wilderness. This is the weaker half of the film. But then the plot shifts, and the tone of the film does as well. Lurie is attacked and his daughter Lucy is robbed and raped, and the two find themselves trapped and isolated — not physically as much as morally — in an idyllic land that has suddenly turned evil.
At this point Malkovich finally begins to inhabit his character, and the focus of the plot turns to the triangle that emerges between him, Lucy (Jessica Haines) and the wily local farmer Petrus (Eriq Ebouaney). The film takes on a new seriousness at this point, and I was surprised that, when the final credits rolled, I felt nearly as moved as I had when I’d read the book.
Nearly, that is — not quite, but close. Director Steve Jacobs has a lush visual sense — the harsh clarity of the cinematography reminds me of Ang Lee’s The Ice Storm — but he also favors portentous setups, soaring Byronic arias and heavy, studied long gazes between characters. The movie also excludes a few specific moments that felt, to me, like keys that unlocked the humanity behind the sometimes diagrammatic ethical equations in Coetzee’s story. These moments include:
• David Lurie’s awkward glimpse, in the beginning of the book, of his favorite prostitute with her child, which ends their relationship.
• The way Melanie, Lurie’s student prey, desperately runs to and from him when he seduces her, revealing her almost comic moral confusion in the face of his will.
• Another almost-comic moment when Lurie visits Melanie’s father to apologize, and stupidly brings a bottle of wine as a gift, not realizing that the father would despise alcohol and see this as further evidence of Lurie’s moral failure.
But other key touches do survive in the film version:
• The argument between Petrus and Lurie over whether two sheep can be removed from their captivity for a short time (it’s clear to Lurie that Petrus will confine his wives in the same way that he confines his sheep).
• The tender love affair between Lurie and Bev, Lucy’s unattractive but kind veterinarian friend.
• Lurie’s outraged fascination with Melanie’s sexually demonstrative performance in a college play, because it so contrasts her detached manner when he tries to interest her.
The novel is better than the movie — of course — but all in all the adaptation is no less successful than that of other famous novels that have gotten much more attention, like Ian McEwan’s Atonement. Having now seen the film, it’s now even more a mystery to me why it disappeared so quickly from theaters. It’s far from a cinematic failure. Maybe it’s just too much of a bummer for date nights and popcorn.
In that case, probably the best way to see it is the way I did: alone, at home with the doors closed, in utter moral isolation.