Philip Roth, arguably America’s greatest living writers (and certainly one of the major chroniclers of middle class ennui), hasn’t been well served by adaptations. Goodbye, Columbus (1969), Portnoy’s Complaint (1972) and The Human Stain have all been badly mistreated by adequate, forgettable adaptations, leaving the prolific Roth looking like one of the more unfilmable novelists. Gladly, Isabel My Life Without Me Coixet’s take on Roth’s novella The Dying Animal is a fine and delicate adaptation of this decidedly masculine, even, some believe, misogynist writer’s work.
As he has done many times before, ageing college professor and womaniser David Kepesh (Ben Kingsley) plucks a young woman, Consuela (Penelope Cruz) out of his literature class and embarks on what usually turns out to be a short-term affair, this one, however, seems different. It isn’t especially that she is young and beautiful (she’s actually a mature student); it is more that she is the biggest hint his life has yet had of intimations of mortality. As he falls in love he wonders how it can work when there are 30 plus years between them. Where with his previous relationships – and particularly the one with his sometime lover Carolyn (Patricia Clarkson) – the lack of commitment allowed him to live in the present, does a deep love force him to confront his own future and impending old age?
Out of such a question Kingsley – a master of ambivalent yet assertive emotion in Betrayal, Death and the Maiden and Sexy Beast – fashions a sympathetic portrayal of an unsympathetic man. As he lets Consuela down at a key moment in the film, we understand the reasons while abhorring the action.
Elegy could easily be damned with the faint praise of being an intelligent adaptation, but when so many great novels are eviscerated and ransacked for little more than plot points and main characters, apparent faint praise can be high praise indeed. Elegy might even be described by the ill-advised use of an oxymoron, for it is, more than anything, a commendable example of an intellectual weepie.
General release from Fri 8 Aug.