Disgrace is a thoughtful, uncompromising film—and that is both its strength and its weakness. It departs from conventional story structure and refuses to play much of anything safe, and while those are admirable (and too-rare) qualities, it also makes it a tough picture to connect and engage with.John Malkovich stars as David Lurie, a Capetown professor who seems deeply unhappy—he’s sleepwalking through his classes, he’s divorced and distant from his children, and even the prostitute he frequents seems uninterested in him. In desperation, he begins a turgid, awkward affair with a student; it quickly blows up in his face, and he’s forced to resign following an inquiry. He flees Capetown and goes to visit his daughter Lucy (Jessica Haines), who lives on a remote farm, growing vegetables and breeding dogs. It seems a fine change of pace, until something horrible happens.
The opening scenes of Disgrace, while deliberately paced, are quite involving; the writing is simple, brusque, and to the point, and director Steve Jacobs shoots much of the material in well-composed medium wide shots, letting the frames (and people within them) breathe. The section dealing with Lurie’s affair is particularly skillful—Jacobs (and screenwriter Anna Maria Monticelli, adapting J.M. Coetzee’s novel) deftly but subtly hint at the power dynamic that infuses the “relationship,” and vividly show the situation spinning out of control. Once he retreats to the sticks, the pace slackens a bit; while the film has a rich sense of place, it drags somewhat as Lurie settles in.
That ebbing turns out to be something of a trick, lulling the audience into complacency before the grisly, harrowing developments of the story turn at the midway point. I’ll not reveal what happens (my press notes gave away too much, and lessened the impact somewhat), but I will say that it is a stunning sequence of tremendous power. But the film proceeds to sound some odd notes in its second half; it’s not going to follow pat storytelling models, which is fine, but a few scenes are just plain befuddling. And the closing scenes are, frankly, somewhat maddening—the screenplay refuses to provide easy pay-offs, but there’s an argument to be made that this particular story just might need one.
Perhaps the picture’s greatest asset is Malkovich’s work; he’s front and center, present in every scene, and it is a performance of tremendous restraint. He’s (smartly) cultivated the popular notion that he is a larger-than-life personality, a crazy, scenery-chewing over-actor, and played up that idea in performances that verged on knowing self-parody, both directly (Being John Malkovich) and indirectly (Burn After Reading). In light of all of that, it is easy to forget what a subtle, sensitive actor he can be when the right role calls for it—and this is the right role. His clipped line readings convey an impatient weariness, and his body language is marvelous—watch his awkwardness among the salt-of-the-earth types when he arrives in the sticks, or the effective scene late in the film in which he asks forgiveness, simply and directly. It’s a sharp turn, and well-matched by Haines’ work as Lucy; her portrait of a bruised but headstrong woman is tough and mesmerizing.
Those performances go a long way, but can’t quite close the deal. It’s an admirable picture, but a difficult one nonetheless—we’re always on the outside looking in, intrigued but seldom genuinely involved, and for all of the skill of Malkovich’s performance, he’s unable to provide an entryway into the material. By the time the film’s 120 minutes winded down, I felt like I’d been an interesting journey, but I’m not sure where the hell we ended up.