Director Steve Jacobs and his screenwriter wife Anna-Maria Monticelli's respectful -- and respectable -- adaptation of J.M. Coetzee's Booker Prize-winning 1999 novel, "Disgrace," proves a double-edged sword. Although the pair has obviously taken pains to stay true to the author's structure, tone and purpose, their fidelity results in a film that's absorbing but often bloodless and, frankly, depressing. There's no arguing, however, that Jacobs and Monticelli have approached their challenging source material with a clear and committed cinematic vision.
Set in post-apartheid South Africa, "Disgrace" stars John Malkovich as David Lurie, a cavalier professor of romantic poetry at a Cape Town university whose messy fling with mixed-race student Melanie (Antoinette Engel) effectively -- and with an arrogant lack of contrition by Lurie -- ends his campus career. The twice-divorced academic, a serial womanizer with a penchant for dark-skinned hookers, packs off for the remote countryside to visit his daughter Lucy (Jessica Haines), a self-sufficient lesbian farmer with a deep feminist streak.
Lurie helps out around the farm and volunteers with the kindly local vet (Fiona Press), but this relative calm is shattered when three young black men brutally rob and rape Lucy and set Lurie on fire, causing an intense rift between father and daughter and turning Lurie into a kind of highbrow avenger.
The fact that some black South Africans may be out for their own brand of revenge -- sometimes physical, sometimes emotional -- against the white man's long-standing domination, is something Lurie, still stuck in a pre-apartheid mind-set, is as yet incapable of absorbing. Complicating matters for this protective father is the uncertain presence of Petrus (Eriq Ebouaney), an entrepreneurial but perhaps cagey black farmhand who watches over Lucy's land.
How Lurie comes to terms with his self-destructive life choices, his daughter's willful progressiveness and the effects of a changing nation ultimately give this story its heft. Unfortunately, though Malkovich remains a compelling and cerebral screen presence, he comes off as too innately detached and prickly to elicit much empathy (not that his character is asking for it, mind you).
And, while the film also omits a number of seemingly key emotional beats (Why does Melanie so quickly -- and angrily -- sour on Lurie? What's really behind Lucy's ongoing disdain toward her father after the rape?), it overly emphasizes, both verbally and visually, the story's "men-as-dogs" symbolism. (Dog lovers beware: There are some tough scenes here.)
That said, it's always encouraging to have an elevated adult drama among our moviegoing choices.
MPAA rating: Unrated
Running time: 1 hour, 58 minutes
Playing: In selected theaters