Any film adaptation of Nobel Prize-winning author J. M. Coetzee’s 1993 Booker Prize-winning novel would have a daunting reputation to live up to, and the husband-and-wife team behind this 2008 effort, director Steve Jacobs and screenwriter/ producer Anna Maria Monticelli do Coetzee’s big themes justice. As ever, eatch out for spoilers, although the book has been out for over a decade…
Set in post-apartheid South Africa, this is the story of an English professor, David Lurie (John Malkovich), who teaches at a college in Cape Town. At 52, he has not given up the womanising of his younger days. With a particular liking for mixed-race girls in their 20s, the rejection by his usual prostitute leads him to coerce a student, Melanie (pictured above, played by Antoinette Engel), into an affair, despite the fact that he teaches her, and that her boyfriend threatens him when he finds out. Lurie is unapologetic when called upon by his colleagues to explain himself, arrogantly telling a student reporter that he was “enriched by the experience,” despite Melanie’s obvious discomfort throughout their relationship.
His lack of repentance leads to the loss of his job, and he heads to the country to stay with his daughter, Lucy (Jessica Haines), whose female partner has just left her. Lucy leads an isolated life on her smallholding, with only Petrus, the black farmhand and Bev of the animal centre where David volunteers to work, for company. To make a living, Lucy sells crops and runs dog kennels.
One day, both father and daughter are brutally attacked by three black men; Lucy is gang-raped and David is set on fire, although he does not suffer any major injuries. The house is ransacked and the dogs shot. It becomes apparent that one of the attackers is related to Petrus’s wife, and that he is suddenly financially much better off, after the attack. Lucy refuses to have the rape reported to the police, or to leave her house, where she is clearly not safe.
David returns to Cape Town and apologises to Melanie’s family for his behaviour. Then Lucy tells her father that she is pregnant from the attack, and will keep the baby. Although David has offered a few times to pay for Lucy to go and live with her mother in Holland, she refuses, and instead signs over her land to Petrus in return for protection, and the right to remain in her house. David, defeated by his daughter’s defiance, rents a place near her, and stays to help her with her work selling crops and disposing of dogs that have been put down at the animal shelter.
So, a lot more plot summary than usual, because a lot of grim, grim things happen, with very little justice or redemption for anyone. Lurie’s disgrace is actually the making of him; Malkovich plays him as icy, detached and forceful in the early scenes, pushing Melanie into saying yes to him, her teacher, then using confidential files to get her details and keeping all the power in their brief, rather one-sided affair. He is not easy to like initially, although he is intriguing. As he says, he “was not made for marriage,” but was has made him so emotionally withdrawn? His preying upon young woman is creepy, yet his protectiveness towards his daughter is fierce – how does that work?
David’s daughter Lucy, too, is a fascinating character, played convincingly by South African actress Haines. Rejecting her academic parents’ careers, she maintains her independence working with the land, and yet she eventually relinquishes her freedom to enter a “contractual marriage” with Petrus, and to raise her rapist’s son (she doesn’t know which of the three is the father). Added to these events is the symbolism of the dogs who are raised by Lucy, but then put down by Bev, and then David, in the welfare centre. Their brutal lives – kept around only when of use – are reflected in those of the humans around them. David gave little thought to the feelings of his young girlfriends in this way, and now Lucy’s existence has become narrow and oppressed. She has a feeling, though, that this is deserved payback for the crimes of the apartheid era, of the colonisers who paved their way. She becomes a martyr to this way of thinking.
The film, and Coetzee’s novel, offers no way out. It is a bleak message, and one which forced then-President of South Africa to respond to the book with “South Africa is not only a place of rape.” Neither is it a place of neat, happy endings.
Disgrace is out on DVD on 8th February.
Original over at Netribution