Philip Roth is arguably America's greatest living author, but his novels haven't generally made for equally impressive movies (Goodbye Columbus, anyone?). Elegy is the rare beast that gets it just about right. Based on Roth's novella The Dying Animal, it deftly captures the saga of an aging college professor grappling with his inner demons while obsessed by a beautiful younger woman.
Chamber dramas based on highbrow literature usually sound warning bells for this particular reviewer, but Elegy avoids the usual pitfalls associated with transforming literature into cinema. Sir Ben Kingsley portrays David Kepsh, a cultural studies professor chafing against the unyielding creep of old age. Prickly and misogynous, he makes for a challenging protagonist. Years ago, David abandoned his wife and young son; he now makes a practice of seducing his more attractive female students once the semester comes to an end. "When you make love to a woman," David confesses in voiceover narration, "you get revenge for all the things that ever defeated you in life." It's not the most romantic sentiment, sure, but there is an unapologetic honesty in David's unabashed selfishness.
Despite his womanizing, David finds his defense mechanisms are no protection when he meets, and falls hard for, Conseuela Castilla (Penélope Cruz). The Cuban-American beauty adores David, but the May-December romance stirs a well of insecurities lodged deep inside David's mind -- issues certain to be discomfortingly familiar to sex-obsessed men of a certain age.
Such precise characterization is what elevates Elegy beyond hyper-literary pretensions. Director Isabel Coixet and screenwriter Nicholas Meyer (who also adapted Roth's The Human Stain) display surgical skill at dissecting the complexities of the human experience. The movie is insightful, wise and - thanks to some unexpected, tragic turns I won't spoil - emotionally riveting.
It also helps to have such an outstanding cast. Kingsley is customarily terrific (I still haven't reconciled his talent with his appearance in The Love Guru), but he is only part of an exceptional ensemble cast that includes Dennis Hopper, Peter Sarsgaard and Patricia Clarkson.
But Cruz is the performer who stays with you long after the end credits. Her Conseuela is heartbreakingly vulnerable. Sure, she won the Oscar for Vicky Cristina Barcelona, but Cruz is just as good - better, actually -- in Elegy.
In anamorphic widescreen 1.85:1, Elegy boasts sparkling picture quality, as you would expect from a recent theatrical release. The lines and bold and details strong. No complaints.
The Dolby Digital 5.1 is sharp and clear -- the dialogue-driven film needs nothing more -- with no distortion or dropout. Also available are English subtitles for the hearing-impaired.
Screenwriter Nicholas Meyer offers a sober, slow-going commentary that focuses on the challenges of adapting a work to film, humanizing an essentially unlikable protagonist and the like. There are long stretches of dead air, but, overall, cinema devotees will find this an informative listen.
Also included is the five-minute, eight-second The Poetry of Elegy (5:08), which is promotional fare featuring interview clips with cast and crew, as well as a generous helping of previews (although not for Elegy).
A haunting and powerful film, Elegy possesses an admirable strain of integrity. While the movie massages some of the edges of the Philip Roth novella on which it is based, it is nevertheless unflinching about its deeply flawed, if recognizable, characters.