Dour, detached, and oozing general contempt, the professor of literature who runs afoul of post-apartheid South Africa in Australian director Steve Jacobs’s Disgrace might have been written for John Malkovich. In this film adaptation of J.M. Coetzee’s brilliant 1999 novel, the actor brings his languid creepiness to the part of David Lurie, a fifty-ish aesthete whose chilly, power-tripping attraction to women of color leads him to seduce a mixed-race student. Unapologetic and forced to resign, David leaves Cape Town for the backcountry, where his daughter, Lucy (newcomer Jessica Haines), a lesbian hippie, farms her small homestead in precarious harmony with her inscrutable black overseer, Petrus (Eriq Ebouaney). Here, in a habitat as scrubby and raw as his city life was tastefully abstract, David will be profoundly humbled. But don’t expect a liberal parable in which everyone learns to get along. Instead, the long-suppressed hatred of South African blacks for their erstwhile masters bubbles up in an attack, whose savagery mirrors, then far surpasses, what David has done. The austere economy of Coetzee’s writing, crisply adapted for the screen by Anna Maria Monticelli, plays out the melodrama with quietly brooding menace. Though overwrought in its early scenes, the movie quickly settles into an intelligently faithful rendering of a calling to account, whose visceral power and political implications need no hyping.
This article from the Village Voice Archive was posted on September 15, 2009