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Genre Drama
Year: 2008

Disgrace is a film adaptation of J.M.Coetzee's novel of the same title, which won such prestigious awards as the Booker Prize and Nobel Prize in Literature. The film is directed by Steve Jacobs, written by Anna Maria Monticelli and stars the indomitable John Malkovich. Disgrace has been the centre of much debate in South Africa, primarily caused by the ANC labeling it as "too pessimistic" a view of South Africa. International audiences and literature authorities have praised it for its brutal honesty. Despite the sensational reception, the film and book refrain from actually over-sensationalising the violence and brutality. This is not an uplifting story about South Africa, but it is an important post-Apartheid novel, written by a man who sought to shed light on the struggle by addressing an international audience and posing the question... what now?

We're introduced to David Lurie, the story's main antagonist/protagonist, whose private life is explored by John Malkovich. Lurie is a literature professor with a love for Byron and Wordsworth and a weakness for sexual desire. He oversteps the boundaries of the University after using his position as a professor to take advantage of a student named Melanie. The incident is brought to the University's attention and Lurie is asked to resign. He's "exiled" to Salem, a small rural settlement near Grahamstown in the Eastern Cape, where he attempts to salvage his last hopes of maintaining an intimate relationship, after several failed relationships, with his daughter Lucy.

Malkovich is a brilliant choice for Lurie, whose abstract arrogance and self-doubt fester behind Malkovich's eyes. It's one of Malkovich's more restrained and humble performances as he grasps the intensity behind the character in this leading role. Lucy is played by Jessica Haines, whose emotional path is tempered by a sensitive performance, while Eric Ebouaney fills in competently as a supporting actor in the difficult role of Petrus.

Disgrace is a film of many contrasts. The urban landscape of Cape Town is set against the rural farmlands of the Eastern Cape. The farm estate is co-owned by both black and white characters. The residue of Apartheid still has a hold on the people, who are waiting for the dust to settle. The humans are contrasted with animals in another power struggle as they maintain the dog kennels. Lurie's knowledge as a Professor is irrelevant, when relegated to Salem. The innocent are pitted against the guilty. Evidently, the film provides a diverse cross-section of the land, the people and the Zeitgeist as worlds collide. Coetzee's novel is the backbone with themes revolving around justice, racial tensions, rape, alienation and Lurie's attitude toward animals.

The novel left many questions without coming to any fixed conclusion, which is exactly how Disgrace ends as a film. This goes against Hollywood conventions, which usually opt for endings with a big red bow to wrap things up. Disgrace also struggles as an adaptation for its harsh content, which is not pleasant to witness or be subjected to as a South African. Rape, violence and a range of negative emotion shroud the story and this makes the experience haunting and depressing. The vestige of hope in Lurie's redemption, Lucy's justice and a stilted harmony are all cast aside as Jacobs sticks to the source material. The film doesn't harp on the violence and brutality. There are several disturbing moments, but these are not graphic and Jacobs holds back. The sex scenes are also toned down with allusion and brief nudity, while if anything, Lucy's rape is traded in for the brutality of being set alight. To be fair, the story is told from Lurie's frame of reference and the aftermath is indicative from Lucy's post-rape state of mind, but "the act" is omitted altogether.

Disgrace is shot on-location in Cape Town with farmland scenes shot in the Cedarberg and interior shots in Australia. The film was partly financed in Australia, which is interesting when you consider that the story is uniquely South African and written by a South African-born author. Poverty, crime and bloodshed create a dreary environment for Disgrace, but this does not seem far-fetched in Lurie's world. The hypocrisy of Lucy's rape is measured out when contrasted with Lurie's relationship with Melanie. Jacobs makes a strong connection between the two for Lurie to come to some sense of heart-felt remorse.

There are aspects reminiscent of Elegy, a film adaptation of The Dying Animal - starring Ben Kingsley with the narrative perspective and relational dynamics. The strong lead duo's performance from Kingsley and Cruz is echoed by Malkovich and Haines in Disgrace. While a similar context and uniquely South African themes resonate with Ian Gabriel's Forgiveness, a film that also dealt with post-Apartheid revenge, justice, intolerance, redemption and racial tensions.

The film is faithful to the novel, the conflicting themes run deep in South Africa, the settings are authentic, the performances are solid and the content is treated with respect. Disgrace is a solid adaptation, however it does hold back when it comes to brutal honesty, opting for a more palatable rendition of the story. It's a difficult film to appreciate. The film moves along at a sluggish pace, which makes the story more immersive and involving for audiences. At two hours, it's an intimate journey with a man who you can either empathise with or despise. This is the crux of the film and will be the deciding factor in whether you leave during or after all's said and done.

The bottom line: Honest.

8.00/10 ( 2 Votes )
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