A noble effort at bringing a complex South African novel to the screen

2009-09-14 00:00

DISGRACE, the film version of J.M. Coetzee’s novel that won the author his second Booker Prize, is a noble effort at bringing to the screen a work that operates on so many complex levels in print.

This may be a film set in South Africa, based on a landmark South African literary work. But with an Australian director (Steve Jacobs), American lead actor (John Malkovic as David Lurie), and French actor playing a key character (Eriq Ebouaney as Petrus), it’s not a South African movie, like most films about this country. Disgrace, though, keeps so close to the novel that it feels authentic.

Lurie is the disenchanted, bitter Cape Town university professor who seduces submissive coloured student Melanie with a ruthlessness that borders on rape. Once found out, he opts to “be shot against a wall” rather than grovel publicly to keep his job.

He seeks to shed career-related complications and find simplicity by joining his daughter Lucy on her farm outside Salem in the Eastern Cape, but finds life there in post-apartheid South Africa to be infinitely more complex.

A violent attack by three youths on Lurie and Lucy forces him to confront his own disgrace.

The Eastern Cape is an apt setting for Lucy’s farm. There’s an eeriness and a tension in the ragged beauty.

The landing point of the 1820 settlers was a region of conflict and struggle then, and a political hotbed during apartheid. Lucy is a modern-day version of the earliest European settlers, having escaped the trappings of city life to eke out an existence from the Eastern Cape’s harsh soil, farming flowers, kennelling dogs and establishing a tense relationship with her rural black neighbours.

The issues of racial tension in post-apartheid South Africa, of white guilt, white bitterness, black bitterness and the rights of the grossly aggrieved majority are raised and, like the country itself, the tough questions are asked and no answers given, because there are none clear enough.

Nothing is cut and dried, no traditional values apply, everything is a complex grey area.

In Lucy’s world no one can be judged, except herself and her immediate family. Reality, however stark, has to be accepted, not struggled against. It is only when Lurie accepts this, and gives up everything, including his daughter, that he earns some form of redemption.

Malkovic seems overly cold as Lurie, and South African actress Jessica Haines steals the limelight as Lucy.

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