Reviewed by: James Benefield

It's rare that a film matches the tone of its source material so exactly. Such is the case with Disgrace; a steely, bone-dry study of exploitation and morality. And in its central performance delivered by a sterile, detached John Malkovich, its frightening post-Apartheid allegory comes to life.

Malkovich stars as David Lurie, a 52-year-old divorced literary professor who finds himself 'beyond counselling'. Lurie enters into an affair with one of his students and quickly gets found out; he enters class one day to see the blackboard emblazoned with 'your days are over, Casanova' in one-foot chalk letters. He admits the affair - and his fixing of his lover's exam scores - freely. Dismissed from his teaching post, he retreats to lick his wounds at his daughter's rural idyll. However, his Eden is soon interrupted with an attack of excruciating violence.

Copy picture

It's an attack that punctuates Disgrace, which otherwise has the cold feel and pace of a marooned glacier. It is detached rather than indifferent, though. It's an important distinction to make for a film which treats its horror with such intelligence and consideration. Malkovich's performance is equally still and concentrated. The only thing that wavers is his South African accent.

It's this tone which makes its discussions about crime and punishment so difficult. There is no soaring music to tell us what to feel. There are no montage sequences to distill a character's emotional journey. The story's two-prongs (the student/teacher relationship and the incident on the farm) deny the audience a traditional or clear-cut three act structure. You're therefore not sure where the story is going, and you're not spoon fed simple, moralistic answers. There is simply no breathing space in the narrative for these messages to be delivered.

Instead, this is a film of symbols, repetition and moral ambiguity. Look out for the scene in which a dog is put down. It's a hard watch - and some audiences may find its constant evasion of a simple answer frustrating, and its moral ambiguities unpalatable. However, get past the glacial pace and you'll find a concentrated intelligence to savour.

Reviewed on: 07 May 2010
Share this with others on...
Disgrace packshot
The complex social life of an English professor forms a mirror for a complex country.
Amazon link

Director: Steve Jacobs

Writer: Anna Maria Monticelli, based on the book by J.M. Coetzee.

Starring: Scott Cooper, Eriq Ebouaney, Jessica Haines, John Malkovich, Fiona Press

Year: 2008

Runtime: 120 minutes

BBFC: 15 - Age Restricted

Country: Australia, South Africa


Glasgow 2009

Search database:

If you like this, try: