A white, middle-aged professor of literature at a Cape Town university, David Lurie (John Malkovich) is forced to leave his job, following an affair with a mixed-race student (Antoinette Engel). At the disciplinary hearing the divorced academic refuses to offer any apologies for his actions, defiantly pleading guilty to all the charges. He takes refuge in visiting his lesbian daughter Lucy (Jessica Haines), who ekes out a living on a remote farm in the Eastern Cape, assisted by a black worker Petrus (Eriq Ebouaney). David’s hopes of peaceful seclusion are shattered however by a brutal attack on both him and Lucy, which she does not want to report to the police.
Adapted by the husband-and-wife team of director Steve Jacobs and screenwriter Anna Maria Monticelli from JM Coetzee’s acclaimed novel, Disgrace presents a suitably stark vision of post-apartheid South Africa, albeit one propelled by a series of dramatic contrasts: city and countryside, young and old, teacher and student, parent and child, black and white, male and female, rich and poor, aggression and submission. Indeed one of the notable strengths here is the impressive widescreen composition, which captures the monumental quality of the forbidding rural landscapes. And the way that the human characters, both in life and death, treat dogs turns out to be one of the story’s guiding metaphors.
Despite the actor’s shaky South African accent, Malkovich’s David is a compelling blend of intellectual arrogance, predatory instinct and physical vulnerability, and there’s a fine supporting performance from Ebouaney, as the cunning, inscrutable Petrus. What’s particularly welcome is that the filmmakers haven’t attempted to turn the source material into a liberal, feel-good parable. Their dispassionate Disgrace suggests that deeply held feelings of guilt, resentment, rage and retribution, which stretch across South African society, will remain profound barriers to genuine reconciliation.
Selected release from Fri 11 Dec.