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Case Number 18326: Small Claims Court

Buy Disgrace at Amazon


Image Entertainment // 2008 // 119 Minutes // Rated R
Reviewed by Judge Gordon Sullivan // February 15th, 2010

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All Rise...

Judge Gordon Sullivan thinks the title refers to the disgraceful number of tropes.

Editor's Note

Our review of Disgrace (Blu-Ray), published April 27th, 2010, is also available.

The Charge

He is what he calls himself, a monster.

The Case

They say you can't judge a book by its cover, but I suspect you can judge a film by its release. Or, to put it more clearly, you can judge a film by its lack of release. Studios and producers are so money focused these days that if a film doesn't get a wide release and/or serious buzz then chances are something is missing. That's especially true in the case of a film like Disgrace, which is based on a prize-winning novel (by J.M. Coetzee), stars a major dramatic actor (John Malkovich), and takes a fresh look at a major political movement (in this case, South Africa post-apartheid). Despite all this going for it, Disgrace hasn't seen much of a release or been treated to any big awards. That doesn't make it a bad movie, but I don't think Disgrace is the kind of film that needs to be seen by many people.

Professor David Lurie (John Malkovich, Rounders) is a teacher of literature (especially the Romantics) at a university in South Africa. When he has a coercive relationship with a young black student he is discovered. Unapologetic, Lurie is dismissed from his post and he decides to retire to the countryside to live with his daughter while writing an opera. Naturally his city preconceptions lead to trouble in the countryside where race and class count for a lot more than at university.

I love John Malkovich as an actor, and I wanted to like Disgraced. However, one glaring problem kept me from my enjoyment: as a character, Professor David Lurie simply isn't interesting. He starts out as a parody of the typical Romantic scholar, all Byronic, full of sexual energy and willing to follow his passions. He's almost interesting when he stands up to his review board and refuses to make anything other than a heartless, formal apology, but even that is motivated by the most boring kind of selfishness. Then, he goes to the countryside and tries to impose his view of the world on the balance that his daughter and the other (black) characters have created. When things go wrong, his indignation rings hollow and his transformation seems perfunctory at best.

I might have been willing to overlook the problems with Lurie if the plot had been anything special, but it's simply another rehash of the same-old "privileged white-man acts like a jerk, goes to the darkest heart of Africa where he learns how much of a jerk he is when something he cares about gets damaged." It's been done before, and done better. I'm intentionally being vague about the bad stuff that goes down, but suffice it to say that it reinforces the standard tropes of female victimization and the primitive nature of African culture.

Maybe I'm wrong. Roger Ebert put Disgrace in his list of the top ten independent movies of 2009. Considering the strength of John Malkovich's performance, I can almost understand that. As usual, Malkovich is a force of nature on screen, embodying all the vigor of his Romantic idols (and in fact this film makes me wish that he was still young enough to star in a biopic of Byron or Keats). His dismay at events later in the film is palpable, and he even makes the rather trite turnaround at the film's end plausible. Malkovich is pretty evenly matched by Jessica Haines as his daughter. Her character must stand up to her father in numerous scenes and Haines plays off of Malkovich beautifully.

Image sent a screener of Disgrace, so it's hard to comment on final quality. What I can say is that Disgrace has some excellent cinematography, and the audio mix keeps the dialogue and score easily audible. The case doesn't list any extras beyond the trailer, which is a shame because I'd love to hear Coetzee thoughts on the film, as well as how it was adapted by Anna Maria Monticelli.

Disgrace is a wonderfully acted, beautifully shot film that ultimately only recapitulates all superior feelings white cultures have felt about African cultures for centuries. Disgrace tells us that once a man has been thrown out of polite society, he will experience nothing but violence from the black African population, which will make him see the error of his ways. Viewers who can get past this tired view will find something to appreciate in the performances of Malkovich and Haines, but this is a film that's difficult to recommend.

The Verdict

Although Disgrace isn't quite a disgrace, it is guilty of wasting serious talent on repeating trite platitudes about humanity.

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Scales of Justice

Judgment: 75

Perp Profile

Studio: Image Entertainment
Video Formats:
• 2.35:1 Anamorphic
Audio Formats:
• Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround (English)
• None
Running Time: 119 Minutes
Release Year: 2008
MPAA Rating: Rated R
• Drama
• Independent

Distinguishing Marks

• None


• IMDb

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