J.M. Coetzee’s thorny, Booker Prize--winning novel of redemption, ethical quandaries and the imbalance of power in postapartheid South Africa has kick-in-the-gut dramatic impact, but Australian director Steve Jacobs’s adaptation (written and produced by his wife, Anna Maria Monticelli) couldn’t possibly do the author justice: It’s too much book for two hours of celluloid. Artfully shot as it is, the film is subtle but never nuanced, and what was written as conflicted behavior now baffles, as complex developmental arcs are pragmatically cut down to sometimes single scenes.
Romantic-poetry professor and aging, divorced womanizer David Lurie (Malkovich) loses his position at a Cape Town university after bedding one of his students, an introductory plot thread so rushed that it’s difficult to understand his actions (why won’t he defend himself?) or the student’s (why does she act victimized, yet still consent?). Disgraced, yes, David withdraws to the remote farm of his lesbian daughter, Lucy (newcomer Haines), where his pigheaded, professorial arrogance is quickly eradicated after they’re viciously attacked by three young black men. Through the racial lens, the oppressor is now the oppressed, and David can barely stifle his projected anger against local black worker Petrus (Ebouaney). A frustrating film full of overplayed men-as-dogs metaphors, it’s only watchable for Malkovich, who could probably read a social studies exam and still be commanding.—Aaron Hillis