Skip to content


July 14, 2009

Well, I finally got to see the film adaptation of J.M. Coetzee’s Disgrace today. Before seeing it, I was a little surprised that it only had an (Australian) M rating. From my memory of the book I was rather expecting an MA rating. I was slightly disappointed in the film: it’s not that I want to watch explicit “stuff” (in fact I often close – or half-close! – my eyes during realistic violent scenes on film) but I did feel that this adaptation somehow missed the full menace of the book. The book is hard to forget. The film, while engrossing, did not seem to have quite the same punch. I’m not quite sure why that is – it could simply be that having read the book, I was too prepared for what was to unfold for the shock value to work.

Interpretation of Disgrace, by Andre Pierre @, Creative Commons Licence 2.0

Interpretation of Disgrace, by Andre Pierre @, used under Creative Commons Licence 2.0

That said, I’m glad I saw it. But first, a brief synopsis. David Lurie, an English professor at a university in Cape Town, is forced to resign after some rather “improper” behaviour with a female student. He goes to stay with his daughter on her remote farm and while he is there they are brutally attacked. What then unfolds is how this impacts each of them – and in particular how he gradually sees the consequences of some of his own previous behaviours. Despite, though, some growth within Lurie, it is not a cheery film.

JohnMalkovich did a good job of portraying the complexity of David Lurie. Lurie is not an easy character to understand – after all, it seems he barely understands himself – but Malkovich goes a long way towards “explaining” him. Lurie is a man who, in his time, has “preyed” upon women taking advantage of the gender (and other) power imbalances between him and them, but who is forced to face (horrific) reality when he and his daughter become victims themselves of power imbalances. Ironically, rape (the ultimate expression of gender power imbalance) is used to usurp the racial power imbalance that is entrenched in South Africa.  The personal is clearly the political in this story. Newcomer Jessica Haines beautifully plays his daughter, conveying well the fragility that lies just below the surface of her strength. Her reaction to what happens to her and her decision regarding her future are hard for us to comprehend but, like her father, we do come to some understanding even if we’re not sure we’d do the same!

The cinematography is spare mirroring the spareness of the book. The landscape is beautifully rendered, but only to convey its harshness. The pace is measured – shots are unhurried, allowing the ramifications of the events to sink in slowly with us as they do with the characters. The score has a gravitas that adds force to the drama being played out. And yet, and yet … perhaps all this gives it an elegaic tone rather than the menace and despair I found in the book. Coetzee’s post-Apartheid South Africa is not a pretty place.

Early in the book – and the film – David uses the word “usurp” by which he means to intrude or encroach upon. This is the subject of the book: the fact that nations and people (black-white, male-female, teacher-student, parent-child, person-animal) usurp upon others/each other. While the film does not quite explore all of these with the richness of the book, it conveys enough for us the get the gist! I would imagine that Coetzee is not dissatisfied with the outcome.

(If you haven’t seen the film, see the trailer here.)

2 Comments leave one →
  1. July 17, 2009 16:36

    I read Disgrace some time ago but didn’t realise it had been made into a film. I remember it being a rather bleak book but definitely insightful. Philip Roth tackles similar subjects (The Human Stain for example). Interesting review – thanks for publishing

  2. whisperinggums permalink*
    July 17, 2009 17:17

    Yes, it definitely is bleak. Do you get to films much? I’ve only read one Roth, The plot against America, which I found intriguing. Must read more of him too.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: