No Country for Old Thinking
"Disgrace" is an adaptation of J.M. Coetzee's novel of the same name and to me it feels like a movie for those who have read his novel or have an interest in the themes explored in the book. Now I haven't read the novel so you may ask how would I know, but it is appears to me that "Disgrace" is symbolic of the situation in post-apartheid South Africa with characters which represent the old and the new whilst events which happen in this story symbolise attitudes and emotions in South Africa. It means that if you come to watch "Disgrace" because it stars John Malkovich you will get the performance you are probably expecting but a story which will be hard going unless you read between the lines and try and understand the symbolism.
Professor of English David Lurie (John Malkovich - Burn After Reading) loses his job and reputation when he abuses his position by sleeping with a student. It leads him going to stay with his daughter who has a small market farm in the East Cape where his feelings are tested when he sees that Lucy (Jessica Haines) shares the land with a coloured farmer called Petrus (Eriq Ebouaney). But when something happens on the farm which leaves him helpless and disgusted it forces him to confront his feelings even further.
Taken on face value "Disgrace" is the sort of movie which seems unfocused and a bit artsy. It starts by focussing on David's love life as he chooses to sleep with African women and abuse his power by sleeping with students and it is shown in such a fleeting, abrupt manner that you are confused to what the focus is. This continues when David goes to stay with his daughter Lucy and whilst we watch him connect with his daughter and the way of living you do question what is going on. And then when something happens on the farm to provide more turmoil you are again shifted to wonder where this is going. Basically if you only watch it as a face value movie it is hard going and to be honest unrealistic in its characterisation.
But then as I said "Disgrace" ends up a movie which feels like it has been made for those who have read Coetzee's novel or have a deep interest in post-apartheid South Africa. Now there are some very obvious elements of post-apartheid going on as we watch David struggle to deal with the fact Lucy shares her land with Petrus, a South African farmer who has strived to make a life for himself. But there is a much deeper level, a symbolic level with characters and events reflecting on a post-apartheid South Africa. To go in to detail would require me to spoil a big part of the movie but it is David's actions to the events and how they make him feel whilst also how Lucy deals with them screams to me symbolism. And to be honest even for someone like me who doesn't know the ins and out of post-apartheid South Africa can pick up on these themes and when you do it makes sense of what seems unrealistic characterisation.
Now whether or not you get the depth of symbolism or not one thing for sure and that is you get another fine performance from John Malkovich who as David is unsettling. There is something creepy about him yet there is also a sense of confusion, confliction, arrogance and eventually remorse going on which when put into context of the deeper symbolism makes it a brilliant performance.
What this all boils down to is that "Disgrace" seems to be a movie made for those who have read the novel and whilst you can pick up on the symbolism of the story and characters it is hard going. What is for certain is that if you watched "Disgrace" purely because it stars John Malkovich you won't be disappointed by his performance but probably find the movie disjointed, uncomfortable and a bit of a slog.
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