It’s easy to talk about why adaptations don’t work when they distort their source material, but it’s harder when they stay faithful, yet still fall short. Disgrace brings J.M. Coetzee’s post-apartheid novel to the screen with all the weighty themes and difficult characters intact, and it features a remarkable lead performance from John Malkovich. And yet, after a compelling opening act and some shocking late-film developments, the film feels disengaged from the action at hand and the issues raised. It’s as if director Steve Jacobs and his screenwriting partner Anna Maria Monticelli set out to make a movie characterized by the distance Coetzee’s detractors have found in his books.
Malkovich begins the film as a Cape Town professor of romantic poetry, a man of patrician mannerisms who loses his primary sexual outlet when the prostitute with whom he has a standing appointment ends their relationship with an excuse about an ailing mother. Undaunted, Malkovich begins an affair with a student (Antoinette Engel), but it’s characterized by uneven footing from the start. She looks indifferent, if never exactly resistant, to his advances. He treats their encounters less like a gift given than a right exercised. And the student, like the prostitute who preceded her in Malkovich’s affections, has dark skin, which further complicates matters. Dismissed from his job when the affair comes to light, Malkovich doesn’t defend himself; he moves to the countryside, where his daughter (impressive newcomer Jessica Haines), having broken up with her girlfriend, tends a small flower farm and dog kennel by herself. Her devotion to the land makes her one of the region’s few remaining white residents.
Malkovich is ideally cast as a man seemingly incontrovertibly set in his ways, one whose powerful intelligence never entirely masks an absence of introspection. An expert on Byron, a poet forever in rebellion against his times, he fails to see how the world has changed, making references to “peasants” with no irony and no thought to the consequences of his thinking. His performance and the studied reverence of Jacobs’ direction make Disgrace worth a look. But Jacobs’ style captures the spareness of Coetzee’s prose without conveying its forcefulness, and the film takes on the author’s difficult obsessions with race, power, and animal rights without really digging beneath their surfaces. It’s admirably true to a source that eludes it.