I read Disgrace before seeing the film; thanks to that, once again, the film didn’t have much impact in its own right. It was well made, as expected, and faithful to the novel. So the principal interest was in judging its merits as an adaptation, discovering small points of deviation, and seeing how the film interpreted the rather puzzling motivations of the story’s characters.
As far as the deviations go, although I heard Margaret Pomeranz say in a radio interview that they’d fiddled with the ending, there were no significant changes at all, except for a reversal of the order of the final scenes — which was a harmless and justified exercise of cinematic license.
As I saw it, there was only one moderate departure: the first half of the film makes the main protagonist David Lurie more unsympathetic than he is in the book. The Herald’s Sandra Hall, who gives no indication of having read he book, finds him too ‘icy’, althugh she attributes this in part to John Malkovich’s portrayal.
This is not to say that he’s very appealing in the book. But at least we are privy to his thoughts, and so can see things from his point of view; nor is the reader influenced by any visceral response to Malkovich’s thin voice and reptilian facial expressions. (No matter how good a job he’s doing in any part, I’m afraid he will always be John Malkovich first and the character second.) In the novel Lurie isn’t despicable. He is essentially Don Juan: you might not like his convictions, but you admire his courage in them. Long as his catalogue of sins may be, he does not intend to add hypocritical remorse to it.
The film, however, makes Lurie unsympathetic through its handling of his ‘seduction’ of Melanie. It isn’t really a seduction at all. Melanie in the film is a reluctant player in his game from start to finish. In the novel, although he has to court her assertively, she does reciprocate a little, vindicating his behaviour at least in his own mind. In the film when he suggests that there may have been a grain of legitimacy in their relationship, this looks like complete self delusion; in the novel it doesn’t entirely.
Nonetheless, the second half of the film adheres pretty well to the book, depicting Lurie’s hard landing and struggle to accept life’s reversals with dignity and resignation, almost coming to revel in the lessons he is learning from taking his turn as a paraiah. It’s a kind of atonement, but something more comprehensive and fundamental than merely paying a debt to society for a specified misdemeanour.
The film handles his journey about as well as any fan of the novel could have hoped for, and by the end it’s hard not to be won over, despite John Malokovich and despite the unflattering initial portait. But I wondered how it would come across to someone who hadn’t read the novel, so I was interested to read Paul Martin’s comment
The film does respect an audiences intelligence in not spoon-feeding every little detail, but it also doesnt convey details that may be required. It felt like it was emulating the source materials structure without sufficient adaptation. On the plus side, the film leaves room for ambiguity and no doubt there will be countless debates over the motivations of different characters.
One thing the film makes no real attempt to bring out is the opera Lurie is writing (about Byron in Italy), especially the evolution of the concept from tragedy to comedy — which is what explains the banjo. I wonder what someone who hadn’t read the novel would make of that.
The biggest conundrum in the story, and the hardest topic for the film makers to negotiate, is what motivates Lurie’s daughter Lucy. Why does she stay on her farm after she’s been raped, and why doesn’t she report what happened to the police? Two interpretations present themselves, both involving atonement for the crimes of others. (The idea of atonement permeates the story on various levels. It would have been more deserving of the title than that other, misnamed, story.) They are:
(1) She’s atoning for the crimes of whites against blacks in South Africa. She’s a farmer: unlike her urbanised father, she’s connecting with the land; she doesn’t want to surrender it, but in order to stay there she must reap the moral harvest what her forefathers sowed.
(2) She’s atoning for her father’s crimes against women. He has told her, in the conversation just before the attack, that he won’t repent for having simply followed his biological desires. The men who raped her were following their desires too: to prosecute them would be to apply a double standard. By accepting what happened to her, she brings his actions home to roost in some sense.
Compared to the novel, the film promotes (1) and suppresses (2). In fact in the book David explictly proposes (1) and Lucy explicitly rejects it — in the conversation in the kombi. But this part of the conversation in the kombi is left out of the film, with the result, it seems to me, that someone seeing the film without having read the novel would look no further for an interpretation than (1). In the film the relevant part of the conversation they have while walking the dogs, just before before the attack, which so abundantly invites interpretation (2), is also omitted.
However, I don’t think either (1) or (2) quite gets to the heart of Lucy’s attitude. She is just committed to making things work; she makes frequent reference to being practical. She is not playing at life, dabbling at living in the bush; in the life she has chosen it doesn’t make sense to invoke the fading power of white institutions to assert herself, far less to high tail it back to the city. I suspect she’s based on a woman portayed in Rian Milan’s extraordinary book about violence in South Africa My Traitor’s Heart. The woman (whose name I can’t remember, and I don’t have th book to hand) suffers similar setbacks, but defines love as ‘what survives its own defeat’, or words to that effect.
The film is unlikely to disappoint anyone who enjoyed the novel. If anything, the writer Anna Maria Monticelli is too fastidious in ticking all the plot boxes, and misses opportunities to generate a bit more atmosphere and suspense, especially in that wild mountainous landscape that Lucy has chosen as her home. Whatever one might think about Malkovich, the rest of the casting is superb. Lucy is more glamorous in the film than in the book, which puts a lot of emphasis on how farm life has worn and thickened her — claimed her as it did the pioneers. But Jessica Haines was so good that I was happy to overlook this. Eriq Ebouaney as Petrus was perfect: neither loveable nor villainous, but at once straightforward and inscrutable, with just a hint of menace.
A question, for anyone who knows about these things: were some bits actually filmed in Sydney, or do Cape Town streetscapes and interiors, for reasons of shared climate and history, strikingly resemble Sydney?