Disgrace is a thoughtful, uncompromising film--and that is both its strength and its weakness. It departs from conventional story structure and refuses to play much of anything safe, and while those are admirable (and too-rare) qualities, it also makes it a tough picture to connect and engage with.
John Malkovich stars as David Lurie, a Capetown professor who seems deeply unhappy--he's sleepwalking through his classes, he's divorced and distant from his children, and even the prostitute he frequents seems uninterested in him. In desperation, he begins a turgid, awkward affair with a student; it quickly blows up in his face, and he's forced to resign following an inquiry. He flees Capetown and goes to visit his daughter Lucy (Jessica Haines), who lives on a remote farm, growing vegetables and breeding dogs. It seems a fine change of pace, until something horrible happens.
The opening scenes of Disgrace, while deliberately paced, are quite involving; the writing is simple, brusque, and to the point, and director Steve Jacobs shoots much of the material in well-composed medium wide shots, letting the frames (and people within them) breathe. The section dealing with Lurie's affair is particularly skillful--Jacobs (and screenwriter Anna Maria Monticelli, adapting J.M. Coetzee's novel) deftly but subtly hint at the power dynamic that infuses the "relationship," and vividly show the situation spinning out of control. Once he retreats to the sticks, the pace slackens a bit; while the film has a rich sense of place, it drags somewhat as Lurie settles in.
That ebbing turns out to be something of a trick, lulling the audience into complacency before the grisly, harrowing developments of the story turn at the midway point. I'll not reveal what happens (my press notes gave away too much, and lessened the impact somewhat), but I will say that it is a stunning sequence of tremendous power. But the film proceeds to sound some odd notes in its second half; it's not going to follow pat storytelling models, which is fine, but a few scenes are just plain befuddling. And the closing sequences are, frankly, somewhat maddening--the screenplay refuses to provide easy pay-offs, but there's an argument to be made that this particular story just might need one.
Perhaps the picture's greatest asset is Malkovich's work; he's front and center, present in every scene, and it is a performance of tremendous restraint. He's (smartly) cultivated the popular notion that he is a larger-than-life personality, a crazy, scenery-chewing over-actor, and played up that idea in performances that verged on knowing self-parody, both directly Being John Malkovich) and indirectly (Burn After Reading). In light of all of that, it is easy to forget what a subtle, sensitive actor he can be when the right role calls for it--and this is the right role. His clipped line readings convey an impatient weariness, and his body language is marvelous--watch his awkwardness among the salt-of-the-earth types when he arrives in the sticks, or the effective scene late in the film in which he asks forgiveness, simply and directly. It's a sharp turn, and well-matched by Haines' work as Lucy; her portrait of a bruised but headstrong woman is tough and mesmerizing.
THE BLU-RAY DISC:
The MPEG-4 AVC 1080p transfer is a touch grainier than one might expect, and backgrounds are occasionally noisy. But the pictureseque countryside photography is well-rendered, with lovely color reproduction and fine contrast, while black levels are appropriately deep. Some of the daytime scenes are a tad washed-out, but overall, it's a decent if unexciting video presentation.
Disgrace is, for the most part, a quiet, dialogue-driven affair, so one doesn't expect much out of the DTS-HD Master Audio track. But the mix is surprisingly active--subtle, yes, but heightened by the haunting, operatic score and immersive environments (the campus during a rainstorm, Lucy's farm, the open-air market, the animal clinic, the party next door). Above all, dialogue is clean and audible, even through the thick accents of several actors.
English SDH and Spanish subtitles are also included.
Bonus features are rather slim. First up are eight Interviews, with writer Anna-Maria Monticelli, producer Emile Sherman, director Steve Jacobs, actors John Malkovich and Eriq Ebouaney, actresses Jessica Haines and Antioinette Engel, and director of photography Steve Arnold. Ranging from three to eight minutes each, they're clearly raw materials for an EPK, with questions presented as on-screen text. They're interesting enough, but every answer appears to have been left in, whether it was a good bite or not (though this leads to one great moment in Malkovich's interview--the question is what research he did to get into character, and he gives the one-word answer of a cheery "None!"). Also, a play-all option wouldn't have been a terrible idea.
The "Disgrace: Behind the Scenes" (9:48) featurette is more inventive than the norm, and somewhat more cheerful than you might expect for such a serious film, at least in the opening montages and costume fittings. Later, we see the cast and crew shooting some of the more difficult sequences; it's done purely as documentary footage, without the interruptions of narration or sit-down interviews. The original Trailer (2:13) closes out the package.
The performances go a long way, but can't quite close the deal. Disgrace is an admirable picture, but a difficult one nonetheless--we're always on the outside looking in, intrigued but seldom genuinely involved, and for all of the skill of Malkovich's performance, he's unable to provide an entryway into the material. By the time the film's 120 minutes winded down, I felt like I'd been an interesting journey, but I'm not sure where the hell we ended up.
Jason lives with his wife Rebekah and their two cats in New York and holds an MA in Cultural Reporting and Criticism from NYU. He is film editor for Flavorwire and is a contributor to Salon, the Atlantic, and several other publications. He blogs at Fourth Row Center and is yet another critic with a Twitter feed.