BOOKS AND ARTS OCTOBER 10, 2009
The Other Man
J.M. Coetzee's novel Disgrace has been made into a film that, in good measure, is faithful to it. Along with the admiration that obviously drew them to the book, the film-makers had to deal with some heavy data. Coetzee is a Nobel laureate; Disgrace won a lofty British award called the Booker Prize; an English newspaper poll lately named Disgrace as the best novel of the last twenty-five years. Aesthetically dubious though such tags are, nonetheless the book has been a favorite of many good readers over many years.
It took courage as well as talent to take on that load of prestige. The adapter, Anna-Maria Monticelli, and the director Steve Jacobs, her husband--both Australian--must have known early on of still another problem. In a salient way, the more faithful they were to the book, the greater risk they might be taking. Coetzee's protagonist is a difficult man who, at the start, disdains the approval of others, does what he wants to do, and disregards as far as possible the world's opinion. This is not a pattern for a cinematic hero, no matter how serious the picture. Yet the picture holds to it as long as Coetzee does.
The film-makers had the extraordinary help of John Malkovich in the role. He has previously played characters with at least a touch of tacit superiority, and the qualities of this role almost seem designed to fit what we already know about him. It is the sort of juncture that makes us think the universe was designed so that this actor and this role should some day meet--like Humphrey Bogart in The Treasure of the Sierra Madre or Paul Newman in The Verdict. Besides, there is a stylistic kinship, I'd say, between Coetzee and Malkovich. In the author's prose, adjectives are sparse: part of his power is his ability to be both strong and subtle without flourishes. Malkovich's acting, so to speak, also has few adjectives.
David Lurie is a middle-aged professor of literature at a Cape Town university. Twice divorced, he patronizes a particular prostitute every week, and after she becomes unavailable he starts an affair with one of his students, Melanie Isaacs. She is more overwhelmed than impassioned, and evidently she tells others about it. Her boyfriend taunts David; her father complains. The university reacts predictably to the eventual scandal. After an inquiry in which David is both frank and unapologetic, he is allowed to resign.
He is also a writer and composer, and he decides to visit his daughter Lucy in the country, to stay with her a while and work there on a project he has been cherishing--a chamber opera about Byron. Lucy's place is in the mountains, where she has a kennel and a market garden of vegetables and flowers. Her neighbor, a fortyish black man named Petrus, helps her as gardener and dog man. She knows her father's character very well, and she welcomes him to stay with her, writing and composing perhaps, while he thinks about his situation and his future.
Their lives are suddenly and horribly altered one day by a brutal assault. Three black youths kill the dogs, rape Lucy, and try to immolate David. Police steps are taken to apprehend the assailants, with few immediate results. Here follows the most complex and influential passage in the story. Contrary to David's expectation, Lucy does not want to move away from this relatively dangerous region. She says that she would feel defeated and would always carry that defeat with her. Unspoken, too, but perceptible, is some sense of her connection in responsibility with post-apartheid South Africa, heightened by her friendship with Petrus--plus the strangely involving discovery that one of the assailants may be a relative of his. David argues with her: she is determined to stay.
Then, in due course, Lucy finds out that she is pregnant because of the rape. To David's surprise, she wants to keep the child. “Should I choose against the child because of who its father is?” she says. (There is one element missing here from the film that would help. In the novel Lucy is a lesbian, whose partner is off somewhere for a while. This factor gives Lucy's decision to keep the child another dimension.) David moves out of Lucy's house and finds shelter, or something more than that, with a couple not far away, while he tries to absorb all that has happened to and around Lucy and himself. In time, possibly out of a kind of pride in Lucy or even--out of his own experience--some envy of her clarity, David comes to accept her view.
The Australian actress Jessica Haines makes her film debut as Lucy and is immediately winning, with a lovely air of human comprehension. Eric Ebouaney as Petrus is winning and deep. Just in his being, he conveys an almost tribal wisdom, a sense of circumspection, a knowledge of what has gone wrong yet of what can be right. Monticelli has crafted her screenplay with a vitalizing sense of obligation to Coetzee that keeps the film whole. Jacobs, whose first feature this is, treats it with surety. He sometimes lets the music get a bit extravagant, but otherwise all is controlled and fluent. In his hands the exteriors, which were shot in South Africa, seem relevant to character decisions.
Disgrace is a drama of metamorphosis--a man's discarding an image of himself that grows increasingly inadequate--yet it is not a primer in ethics. At the beginning David sees himself as a kind of Byronic persona, perhaps tinged by the poet he adores: a creature of impulse rather than discipline. His obdurate behavior at the faculty inquiry, while quite genuine, seems part of a selfportrait he has painted. Ultimately, largely as a result of his experience with Lucy, he reaches the polar extreme from his faculty-meeting behavior in a scene at Melanie's house, with an act of complete self-abasement. Yet his progress throughout is no moral formula. He is too intelligent not to know what is happening to him: he is also too intricate to glory in it completely as a species of salvation. Coetzee's novel makes the most of this contrapuntal texture, and Malkovich realizes it as thoroughly as possible in his consummate performance.
The Other Man has surprises in its plot, and the film itself is a surprise, though this last surprise is probably not intended. The original story was by the German author Bernhard Schlink (The Reader). It was then adapted by two eminent Englishmen, the director-writer Richard Eyre and the playwright-scenarist Charles Wood. I don't know the Schlink original, but it came out at this end as a nice, comfy 1930s picture--the first seventy minutes of it, anyway. Computers and cell phones have been added, but the film is one more triangle story. It deals with that hardy perennial: can a person truly love two people? What good old stuff. The earliest example I can think of is Wife vs. Secretary, done in 1936, but it was good old stuff even then. This time it's the husband who searches out a rival. Great. As The Other Man starts, it is like settling back in an easy chair.
An English couple have been married for twenty-five years and have a twentyish daughter. They are well off, of course: Peter is a corporate executive, Lisa is a successful shoe designer. It is essential for this kind of film that there be no money worries: how could hard-up people have time for these shenanigans? Lisa is suddenly gone from their archetypal English country house--her plans unknown--and Peter, searching for a clue to her whereabouts on her computer, comes across love letters exchanged with another man. We could hardly be less flabbergasted. Not only does the title prepare us: the dovecote air of the opening promises a jolt. Peter follows a clue to Milan, meets the other man--a continental!--and both men are set in place for the plot twists that follow.
Those twists are extreme. They seem the authors' strained attempts at the unexpected, to differ from the usual or predictable endings of so many triangle stories. The Eyre-Wood devices are never anything but that. Yet, though the last twenty minutes or so puzzle us, the preceding seventy minutes have been so pleasant that we are in a forgiving mood.
The pleasure comes in some degree from the Gravity Lite dialogue--as John Van Druten and S.N. Behrman, or Philip Barry, used to spin it out--but a great deal comes from the people who speak it. Peter is played by Liam Neeson; Lisa, by Laura Linney; the other man, Ralph, by Antonio Banderas. As is often the case with exceptional actors, they not only make the dialogue and (most of) the story palatable, they serve as figurative co-authors. They enrich the piece. An early restaurant scene between husband and wife glitters. Later scenes in a Milanese café between the two men are enjoyably symbolic. The café specializes in chess. Ralph doesn't yet know who Peter is, and their chess games take on the aura of investigative duels.
The Other Man reminds us of an incidental but relevant function of film--as calendar. (Linney excepted.) There is something warm, almost familial, about seeing Neeson's face move into middle age; it reminds us of how long we have had the chance to be grateful to him. And Banderas, that bundle of sheer ebullience whom Almodóvar brought us in the 1980s? Now he is a mature man who simply cannot help being charming but who can rely on other resources as well.
Eyre is, besides his films, a veteran theater director, and has doubtlessly helped his actors to refine their work. He has been especially good with Romola Garai, who is movingly importunate as the Peter-Lisa offspring. Eyre has the eye of a good visual chef: he drops in pictorial elements that help the flavor. Milan has never been one of my favorite Italian cities, but Eyre, with his cinematographer, Haris Zambarloukos, has made me think it over.
Stanley Kauffmann is the film critic for The New Republic.