David Lurie (John Malkovich), twice-divorced and dissatisfied with his job as an English professor in post-apartheid South Africa, finds his life falling apart. When he seduces one of his students, Melanie (Antoinette Engel) and does nothing to protect himself from the consequences, he is dismissed from his teaching position, and goes to live with his lesbian daughter Lucy (Jessica Haines), who shares a farm in the Eastern Cape with trusted black worker Petrus (Eric Ebouaney). For a time, his daughter's influence and natural rhythms of the farm promise to harmonise his discordant life. But the balance of power in the country is shifting. In the aftermath of a vicious attack by three black youths, he is forced to come to terms with the changes in society - as well as his disgrace.
Review by Louise Keller:
Desire and its consequences are at the heart of this complex drama that has the power to shred us emotionally. Based on the Booker prize winning novel by J.M. Coetzee, this is the kind of film that knocks you for a loop. It surprises at every turn, takes you where you least expect to be taken and twists a knife into your heart just after you think you have endured the worst of it. Directed and adapted by the husband and wife team who brought us the quirky and accessible La Spagnola in 2001, Steve Jacobs and Anna-Maria Monticelli have a profound grasp of the subject matter, resulting in a mature, thought provoking work that resonates. Subconsciously, the film throbs with truth as we find ourselves sinking deeper and deeper in a quagmire of redemption, acceptance and reconciliation reflecting the South African divide.
When we first meet John Malkovich's lust-driven University professor David Lurie, we quickly understand his philosophy that there are more important things in life than being prudent. He teaches romantic poetry and listens to classical music, while lust fuels his leisure time. Disgrace is the result of his liaison with his student Melanie (Antoinette Engel). But that is just the beginning of the journey. We take a sharp right hand turn as David drives through the distinctively barren South African terrain to the remote farm where his lesbian daughter Lucy (Jessica Haines) lives. The harsh reality of daily life begins, where desire is examined from a converse point of view. Rape and the confrontation of an unfathomable cultural mindset start life spinning as fast as the hubcaps of the pickup trucks on the desolate, dusty roads.
Malkovich is one of those actors who cannot help but carry loads of gravitas. Here, as always, he is brilliantly credible as a severely flawed man forced to learn the reality of the poetry he teaches. ('One who goes to teach learns the keenest of lessons; one who goes to learn, learns nothing'). Haines gives a staggering performance as Jessica, the strong woman who makes tough decisions as her comfort zone crumbles as she loses everything, while Eriq Ebouaney is striking as Jessica's neighbour Petrus, whose life philosophies must be accepted. There are two especially devastating moments in this film and they arrive unexpectedly. The first is the scene in which Malkovich is crying: we see him as from the back of a car carrying unusual cargo. The second is at the animal shelter, where David helps Bev (Fiona Press) in the heartbreaking task of dealing with unclaimed dogs. Special mention to Antony Partos' exceptional score which accentuates and tugs at our emotions and Steve Arnold's splendid cinematography which captures the starkness of the landscape. Disgrace is a powerful work and one that is not easily forgotten. Sadly, the resonance of life in South Africa feels only too real and familiar.
Review by Andrew L. Urban:
In 1999, Disgrace won the second Booker Prize for Nobel laureate J.M. Coetzee. That is both an accolade to admire and a mountain to climb if you're going to adapt the novel into a film; such a different medium. Astonishingly enough, Anna Maria Monticelli and husband Steve Jacobs have pulled it off. There may be quibbles about some aspects and some scenes, but the film works as a piece of cinema, whether connected to the book or not. And as I haven't read the much lauded book, I can only respond to the film.
The saturated self awareness that John Malkovich brings to his roles is perfectly suited to the character of David Lurie, a man whose love of literature, especially the romantic poets, contrasts with his unromantic personal style. When he seduces young Melanie (Antoinette Engel) it is only superficially romantic. (Here is one of my quibbles: I'd like to have seen the precise nature of this seduction; how Melanie succumbed is so crucial to our view of David's actions and thus his character.)
But that's just the start, in a work that jolts us to attention with the vicious attack against David and his daughter Lucy (Jessica Haines) at her remote flower farm, where David has gone after his forced resignation from university. It is here that we are confronted with the demons of post apartheid South Africa that J. M. Coetzee writes about with evident heartache. It's a complex story with uneasy and uncomfortable truths; and it is Lucy - in a wonderful performance by Jessica Haines - who delivers the symbolic and also tangibly real progeny of this traumatised state.
Malkovich and Haines aside, Disgrace features remarkable performances from both Eric Ebouaney as Petrus, the man who shares farming land with Lucy, and whose history sows the seeds that grow the plants of the new South Africa; and Fiona Press as the Animal Welfare League vet who provides a haven for abandoned dogs - and David. She, too, is a symbol, a representative of people of good heart who try to make a difference, often in vain.
Africa plays its soulful, bitter sweet self as the continent where nature's wild beauty is a helpless witness to atrocious actions by mankind, and provides some soul-searching images thanks to Steve Arnold's splendid cinematography. The score is another valuable contribution by the multi awarded Australian composer Antony Partos, and for all its sombre notes, the film is a rich, textured and emotionally engaging experience that challenges our ethical and moral views about South Africa - as I suspect does the novel.