This Australian-South African hybrid is a powerful and accomplished film that manages to be both brilliant and terribly unlikeable at the same time.
Based on the novel by Nobel Prize-winning author J.M. Coetzee, Disgrace sees professor David Lurie sacked from his teaching job after an affair with one of his students. To make matters worse, he seems to harbour no remorse whatsoever. Pleading guilty at once, he doesn’t have any time for repentance, and goes to stay with his daughter in a remote part of the Eastern Cape. There he finds a post-apartheid South Africa overflowing with old resentment and fresh hatred.
John Malkovich is perfectly cast as David. His performance is completely unselfconscious, and though it’s taken me many years to appreciate his talent (Being John Malkovich helped a lot), he truly is a wondrous performer. David is infuriating, seeming to think that honesty somehow banishes the need for atonement, and it’s somewhat satisfying to witness his enlightenment, no matter how horrid it is.
Horrid is the prime adjective here, as David and his daughter Lucy (Jessica Haines) are subjected to the horrors and indignities of a wretched existence. Unlike David, Haines’ character is actually likeable, which makes her trials all the more heartbreaking to watch. I don’t know enough about recent South African history to claim any authority, but Disgrace seems to suggest that many white inhabitants view the world through a layer of shame. This is a dramatically confronting feature, though it presents a South Africa so harsh and unforgiving that I’d never even want to visit.
The film is beautifully shot, even if the editing feels a little too static at times. The score is great also, but all this seems to highlight the depressing nature of the production. Disgrace is a really hard film to like. It’s a case of horrible events being experienced by both the likeable and unlikeable characters, and the film left me with the sense that we humans have few redeeming qualities.
I have often tried to stifle the belief that Australian literature (Coetzee is an Aussie citizen) is required to be depressing, but in the face of Disgrace it’s no small feat. I can honestly say that this film is fantastic, but I’d have a hard time recommending it to anyone who doesn’t want the cinematic equivalent of punch to the gut.Rating: