A dissolute Cape Town academic confronts the changing face of South Africa and the darkest recesses of his soul in the absorbing drama “Disgrace.” Anchored by another marvelously quirky yet deadly serious performance from John Malkovich, and likely to be relished by the fan base of J.M. Coetzee’s Booker Prize-winning novel, this is a strong, perceptive, old-school arthouse pic with solid legs in all media.
Well-dressed romantic poetry prof David Lurie (Malkovich) lives life with a languid mix of ennui and contempt that masks the troubled soul of a racist and predator. When an ill-advised, heavy-handed affair with a student (Antoinette Engel) is revealed, he accepts severe punishment with remorseless defiance.
Impulsively deciding to visit his grown daughter, Lucy (noteworthy newcomer Jessica Haines), at her remote Eastern Cape farm, Lurie’s world is shattered further when a seemingly random attack by three youths leaves both father and daughter physically and emotionally broken.
Bravely and rightly eschewing narration, scripter Anna-Maria Monticelli and helmer Steve Jacobs (married producers whose previous pic was the effervescent 2003 comedy “La spagnola”) have distilled Coetzee’s tough novel into a focused, absorbing meditation on race, class, history and sex.
Malkovich is a living symphony of tics and mannerisms in service of a profoundly self-absorbed character, yet never upstages Haines or the fine supporting cast.
Tech charge is led by Steve Arnold’s fine, deep-focus widescreen lensing on rugged South African locations.