×
You will be redirected back to your article in seconds

Toronto Film Review: ‘The Death and Life of John F. Donovan’

Xavier Dolan crafts an ecstatic ode to the power of celebrity in this intensely personal account of how a child actor’s correspondence with a closeted Hollywood star inspires his own life choices.

Director:
Xavier Dolan
With:

Kit Harington, Jacob Tremblay, Natalie Portman

2 hours 3 minutes

Hidden among more than 250 movies screening at this year’s Toronto Film Festival, there’s one — well-written, relatable, and wonderfully of-the-moment — in which a mom, fed up at last with her child’s unremitting narcissism, snaps, “Not everything’s about you,” adding that it’s OK to be selfish in your 20s, but it stops being cute when you turn 30. Xavier Dolan’s “The Death and Life of John F. Donovan” is not that movie, although its director, who is 29, might benefit from seeing that other, better Toronto film, “The Weekend,” which contains the aforementioned scene, and whose central lesson he would do well to absorb: Maturity comes in realizing that you are not the center of the universe.

A work of stunning technique eclipsed by its increasingly jaw-dropping solipsism, “Death and Life” — or “How Deep Into Xavier Dolan’s Navel Dare We Gaze?” — may as well be preaching the opposite message: It turns the tragedy of a closeted A-list celebrity’s overdose/suicide into the story of how that incident inspired a younger actor to embrace his own homosexuality. And so, what could have been a powerful ode to the impact that movies have in shaping our identities — and by extension, the reason broken people are drawn to the profession, through which they hope to reach others like themselves — becomes an over-the-top celebration of Dolan himself.

Among cinephiles, the young child actor turned auteur is already one of the most divisive directors of his generation, having presented five of his first six features at the Cannes Film Festival, where any sign of criticism amid the acclaim has turned the dialogue between Dolan and the press so toxic that he swore to unveil his seventh film (and English-language debut) somewhere else, ultimately settling on the Toronto Film Festival, whose appreciative audiences seem to love everything — and nothing more than celebrating homegrown Canadian artists. Love him or hate him, there can be little denying that Dolan is exactly that: a true artist who, by all indications, feels things more intensely than the rest of us, and who continues to bare his soul, no matter how harsh the response.

Although it may seem as if Dolan is holding nothing back, after nearly two years in editing, this magnum opus — which was rumored to have sprung from a nearly 300-page script, and once involved an entire subplot for Jessica Chastain, who has been seamlessly cut from the picture — runs an eminently reasonable 123 minutes. Building from the soul-rending opening cry of Adele’s “Rolling in the Deep” to the barbaric yawp of the Verve’s “Bittersweet Symphony” (with a heavy-handed assist from composer Gabriel Yared during the intervening two hours), this is ecstatically self-indulgent filmmaking. And yet, compared with the epic running time of “Lawrence Anyways” or the emotionally supercharged “It’s Only the End of the World” (which this latest most closely resembles), one gets the distinct sense that it’s over even before it has begun.

That could just as easily be said of Hollywood star John F. Donovan’s tragically short life, the tabloid-ready conclusion of which imprinted itself on 11-year-old Rupert Turner (“Room” prodigy Jacob Tremblay) the way that JFK’s assassination or the Challenger explosion did upon previous generations: It was the defining incident in his own journey, and now, 11 years later, he has published a book assembling more than 100 letters penned by the star (played by “Game of Thrones” heartthrob Kit Harington, who’s hard to accept as much more than what the film dismisses as an “actor du jour”).

How did Rupert come to possess such a trove of correspondence? When he was six, the kid wrote Donovan a fan letter (we never hear its contents, although you can Google to find the letter Dolan wrote to Leonardo DiCaprio after seeing “Titanic” five times and imagine something similar). Against all odds — and what surely would have been the advice of bull-in-a-china-shop manager (Kathy Bates) — Donovan replied, striking up an unlikely pen-pal correspondence with the kid that somehow went unobserved by Rupert’s mother (Natalie Portman) all those years.

But these were no ordinary letters. Written by hand, in green ink, they offered a view into the tortured identity of a deeply private actor: Donovan, star of a CW-style primetime soap, was gay, which obliges him to treat his public life as a kind of performance, too. Does Donovan open up about any of this with Rupert? Dolan’s screenplay — or whatever fraction of it is represented on-screen — is maddeningly unclear about the contents of their correspondence: “I know your fantasies, I know your dreams,” writes the star, creepily, and though Rupert treats the actor’s letters like a personally addressed It Gets Better PSA, Donovan’s experience may as well illustrate the opposite. It’s as if Dolan wants to offer audiences the celebrity role model he never had — and yet, the character who embodies that isn’t Donovan but Rupert, who succeeds in doing what the star never could: live his truth.

All of this is filtered through a peculiar framing device, in which a “serious” journalist (Thandie Newton) begrudgingly sits down to what she sees as a fluff-piece assignment: interviewing Rupert, now an adult and an actor in his own right (played by Ben Schnetzer, who bears almost no resemblance to Tremblay), about his new book, which she hasn’t bothered to read. Desperate for respect, Rupert parries with the reluctant reporter over the course of the interview — really more of a colorful, discursive monologue, in which Rupert recounts the bullying child-actor auditions and mommy issues of what was essentially Dolan’s own childhood — and we watch her grow ever more impressed by what a profound soul he truly is.

“Final question,” he says near the end, and one thinks: Wait, has she had the chance to ask any questions? “This is a story about intolerance,” he tells the reporter, insisting that they want the same thing: to make an “impact on the thinking of people.” Cinema can do that, and “Death and Life” goes as far as any film — except perhaps “Win a Date With Tad Hamilton!” — to dramatize our childhood dream to connect with our celebrity idols. But should this story really be about Rupert?

Granted, Dolan stylishly interweaves scenes from Donovan’s life, including his fake marriage (to Emily Hampshire), failed same-sex romance (with Chris Zylka), and strained relationship with his alcoholic mother (Susan Sarandon), even imagining a mystical stand-alone monologue delivered by a twinkly-eyed Michael Gambon, who tells the tortured star, “I look at you, and all I see is a person whose work matters to my grandson.” Where Newton’s character had been pressed to squeeze her interview in before an all-important flight, upon hearing this, the seasoned war reporter opts to miss her plane and hear Rupert’s story.

Dolan writes juicy roles actors want to play, filtered through the egotism of his own experience: Portman’s big scene involves running in slow-motion to a Florence and the Machine cover of “Stand by Me” for a rain-drenched reconciliation with Rupert, while Bates’ moment finds her lecturing Donovan on how he mistreated the poor kid on national TV. Even Donovan can’t die without sending the kid one last letter — an apology, of course. Yes, audiences want to see themselves on-screen, but do they want to see quite so much of Dolan?

Toronto Film Review: 'The Death and Life of John F. Donovan'

Reviewed at Toronto Film Festival (Special Presentations), Sept. 10, 2018. Running time: 123 MIN.

Production: A Les Films Séville presentation of a Lyla Films, Sons of Manual production, in association with Warp Films. (Int'l sales: Séville Intl., Montreal.) Producers: Lyse Lafontaine, Nancy Grant, Xavier Dolan, Michel Merkt. Executive producers: Joe Iacono, Patrick Roy, Anick Poirier, Nathanaël Karmitz, Elisha Karmitz.

Crew: Director: Xavier Dolan. Screenplay: Dolan, Jacob Tierney. Camera (color, widescreen): André Turpin. Editors: Dolan, Mathieu Denix. Music: Gabriel Yared.

With:

Kit Harington, Jacob Tremblay, Natalie Portman

, Susan Sarandon, Thandie Newton, Kathy Bates, Ben Schnetzer, Sarah Gadon, Emily Hampshire, Jared Keeso.

More Film

  • Vice Christian Bale Sam Rockwell Playback

    'Vice' Reviews: What the Critics Are Saying

    Reviews are in for Adam McKay’s Dick Cheney biopic, and it’s not all awards-season buzz. Despite garnering six nominations for this year’s Golden Globes, McKay’s kitschy approach to the politically charged film has polarized reviewers, prompting a mix of scathing critiques and celebratory praise for the director’s distinct film style. More Reviews Film Review: 'Malila: The [...]

  • Lena Waithe Brian Tyree Henry

    Lena Waithe, Brian Tyree Henry to Present $125k in Annual Film Independent Grants

    Writer-creator Lena Waithe and actor Brian Tyree Henry will present a quarter of a million dollars in filmmaker grants come January as hosts of the annual Independent Spirit Awards nominee brunch. Waithe, this year’s Spirit Awards honorary chair, and Henry will dole out the prizes in four categories, including a $50,000 unrestricted grant for a [...]

  • Piero Tosi Luchino Visconti

    How Costume Designer Piero Tosi Dressed Up Cinema

    One of international cinema’s undisputed greats in costume design, Piero Tosi’s work first faced the awards season spotlight 64 years ago with only his third film, Luchino Visconti’s masterwork “Senso,” which competed for the Golden Lion in Venice in 1954. Nominated for five Oscars for costume design and recipient of an honorary Oscar in 2013, [...]

  • RYAN GOSLING as Neil Armstrong in

    Big Breakthroughs Seen in Below-the-Line Categories

    Is 2018 an anomaly, or is it a harbinger of things to come? The awards derbies of recent years have seen a predominance of indie films at the expense of big studio features — resulting in a slate of Oscar contenders devoid not only of genuine blockbusters but also of more modest mid-budget crowd-pleasers. This [...]

  • Fox Germany Veteran Vincent De La

    Fox Germany Veteran Vincent De La Tour Heading to Paramount Pictures

    20th Century Fox veteran Vincent de la Tour is joining Paramount Pictures in a role covering Austria, Germany and Switzerland. He will be executive vice president for theatrical and home media for those territories, overseeing the local teams and reporting to Cameron Saunders, Paramount’s EVP of international theatrical distribution, and Bob Buchi, president of worldwide [...]

  • Editorial use only. No book cover

    It's Time to Enjoy the Movies and Ignore the Oscar Noise

    For most of its 91 years, Oscar has been surrounded by hoopla. Now it’s surrounded by noise, which isn’t the same thing. For decades, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences’ attitude toward the media was: “Don’t talk about the organization; instead, talk about the creative members and their movies.” More Reviews Film Review: [...]

  • Crazy Rich Asians

    Diverse Lineup of Actors Jostle for Awards Attention

    It’s been less than four years since #OscarsSoWhite became a hot topic at the Academy Awards after 2015 films like “Creed” and “Straight Outta Compton” failed to land major nominations for people of color. (It actually began the year before but picked up steam when, for the second year in a row, no people of [...]

More From Our Brands

Access exclusive content