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Scolded by Australians

Scolded by Australians

by Nathan Zeno / 28.07.2009

I was never sure how I was meant to feel about Disgrace, the JM Coetzee novel. I always wondered if the decisions the characters made at the end of the book were meant to be taken in earnest or if my mild irritation at them was the point Coetzee was trying to make.

John Malkovich stars as David Lurie, a Cape Town University lecturer. Malkovich takes the annoying intellectual liberalism of Lurie and humanizes him, but ever so slightly. Directed by Australian Steve Jacobs, Disgrace follows Lurie’s dismissal from his teaching post after having his affair with a student exposed by her boyfriend. The boyfriend is played by a young actor (pictured in red and black jacket) whose performance managed to stink up the screen so badly that there were audible groans from around the cinema. Lurie heads out to the country to stay on his daughter Lucy’s farm. But Lurie discovers that his daughter’s lesbian lover has left her and she is now working in co-operation with Petrus, her former-farmworker, who after receiving a land grant, is now her co-tenant and neighbor. It becomes clear to David that this alliance is uneasy. David starts working in an animal shelter and drifts toward an affair with the woman (played by Fiona Press, delivering the stand out performance in the film) who runs the place. If ever there was a portrait of wasted aimless liberal mores, this is it. And then when Petrus is away, David and Lucy are attacked by three young men. It is how they deal with this attack that is the pivot to them discovering more about the place in which they are now living.


Eric Ebouaney plays Petrus as a sort of wise fool who knows nothing and while the plot invests the character with plenty of menace, Ebouaney does not. While I think it is perfectly understandable, for funding reasons, that the two lead roles in this South African story are played by American and French actors, it does no service to the nuances inherent in the novel. Maybe it because I can’t get past Malkovich’s meta-character history, but something about Disgrace feels removed and inappropriate.

At the novel’s conclusion, Coetzee, seemed to be distancing himself, in essence saying “This is what you have wrought”, the film version seems to say “This is the solution”, offering up as the only option to “misguided” liberals that they must go through the repentance that Lurie seeks to avoid. It’s like being scolded by a substitute teacher for something someone else did. And I, for one, don’t take kindly to that sort of preaching, especially from an Australian.

Disgrace is at the DIFF on the 29th at The Sneddon and 1st at Nouveau. It releases on circuit later in the year.

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  1. Anonymous says:

    Lots of typos in this review.

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  2. Andy says:

    apart from the odd comma and apostrophe here and there, and Nathan’s dodgy run-on sentences, where are all these typos?

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  3. AT says:

    This was always going to be a tough film to make and watch. The book is so full of South African nuances and insinuations that it’d be damn near impossible to accurately portray it in a film, no less with such a strong international influence. Remains to be seen whether the ANC will take as much offence to the movie as they did the book; somehow, after reading this review, I doubt it.

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  4. SleazeZA says:

    ” I for one, don’t take kindly to that sort of preaching, especially from an Australian”. Ouch that hurt!

    Nice one Nathan -He was always a sanctimonious, although Nobel Prize winning, git even when he was a South African

    And why is the typo person anon, do you guys have a Fatwa over there at Mahala on grammar dissenters?

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  5. Andy says:

    we’re thinking about initiating a fatwa… but that’s expensive and time consuming. And hey, we’re an under-financed start-up magazine without a sub-editor. More likely it’s because Anon is a serial griper looking for loose threads and scabs to pick at instead of engaging in a real debate about the substance of the article…

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  6. Carol Reed says:

    Substance! What substance, Zeno is the griper. In fact, I think Zeno is JM Coetzee….

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  7. Andy says:

    Zeno wishes…

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  8. Adam says:

    I have only one question re these films: How good are the foreign actors’ Seffrican accents? Unless they nail it, I find such fillums unwatchable.

    When did anyone last see a movie where a foreign actor got any sort of Seffrican right?

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  9. Nathan Zeno (has been banned?) says:

    Well, Malkovich is Malkovich is Malkovich is Malkovich is Malkovich is Malkovich is Malkovich is Malkovich is Malkovich is Malkovich is Malkovich is Malkovich is Malkovich is Malkovich is Malkovich is Malkovich is Malkovich is Malkovich is Malkovich is Malkovich is Malkovich is Malkovich is Malkovich is Malkovich is Malkovich is Malkovich is Malkovich is Malkovich is Malkovich is Malkovich is Malkovich is Malkovich

    The other guy maybe, I couldn’t say, not really knowing what an eastern cape accent sounds like. I have kept away from those parts since my unfortunate crocodile/LSD incident during the early nineties. It sounded right, but i just don’t have the local knowledge.

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  10. Dylan says:

    Hagen Engler explained the nuances of the Eastern Cape accent in one of his books of surf stories.

    (I’ll paraphrase)

    ‘My arse is red because I’ve been farting with my whaaf.’

    My eyes are red because I’ve been fighting with my wife.’

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  11. lisa says:

    Engaging, as i do, with an Eastern Cape individual on a daily basis, that one just made me spit coffee through my nose onto my keyboard.

    Ps. Andy, wanna hire a sub?

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  12. Nikki Temkin says:

    I interviewed the director of Disgrace, Steve Jacobs last week and my article about the fillm adapatation and whether it succeeds or not in the Sunday Lifestyle this weekend. It’s not a review of the film.
    I disagree with the review above– I thought that Malkovich was excellent and so was Eric, who I felt managed to convey an underlying sense of menace in his character without labouring the point.
    Of course it is sad that Australian directors are making “our” stories but as Jabobs explained to me on the phone, he encountered many and various obstacles (purposeful) from the beaurocracy here which meant that he was not able to receive any funding from any of our local film bodies so there was no possible partnership. He struggled very hard to retain the integrity of Coetsee’s work and this may have meant turning down people who wanted the story to be changed to be more acceptable and more palatable.
    I am inclined to feel that our national film bodies are loathe to invest in any stories that they feel may put the country in any negative light or are not “uplifting” and positive. This is extremely unfortunate. It means that in every way, censorship is at work in our country and also discourages foreign investors from wanting to work in partnership with our filmmmakers and God knows, our industry needs the money. We should be glad that our stories are being told instead of pandering to our egos of thinking that only South Africans dare make South African stories. Pity too that the ego of the ANC is so fragile that it cannot stand any criticism either from the arts world which is supposed to hold up a mirror to society.
    Plus, I do not feel that Jacob’s film, although far from a perfect piece of work, was preachy at all. It simply offered one perspective on dealing with the chasms and challenges that we face in our democracy.

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