Saturday, August 09, 2008

ELEGY - intelligent, emotionally brutal drama

ELEGY is a well-made, brilliantly acted, intelligent and moving drama by Spanish director Isabel Coixet and based on a novel by Philip Roth. It stars Ben Kingsley as an ageing academic with a penchant for sleeping with his students. More seriously, he has devoted his life to becoming truly independent, at the expense of his relationship with his son and a certain loneliness. The professor starts an affair with a stunning young student (Penelope Cruz). He is mesmerised by her beauty and frightened by the fact that he will never truly possess her. His flaws are to objectify her - think of her as unknowable - and to assume that she will leave him. This last is fatal. She is, in fact, remarkably self-assured, and prepared to brave society's scorn by introducing her older lover to her conservative family. *He* is the one who lacks faith, breaking her heart in the process. This act, so true to life, comes roughly half way into the film and the remainder of the movie is about how he comes to terms with his decision, his relationship with his son, and his relationship with the girl. There are no epiphanies or neat endings, but genuine character development and brutal emotional encounters.

Ben Kingsley gives a nuanced performance and has a real rapport with his unjudgmental best friend (Dennis Hopper) and, finally, with his son (Peter Sarsgaard). But the lynchpin of the film, and the real achievement, is that the relationship between Kinglsey and Cruz is utterly believable. We believe that they both find each other attractive and have a complicated, evolving relationship, despite the age difference. Cruz, in particular is superb as the student. Watch her reaction in the key episode at the centre of the film, and feel the tragedy of a photo-shoot near the end of the film. It's an award-winning performance. In addition, I would single out Patricia Clarkson for praise in her cameo role as a self-assured business woman. It's always a pleasure to see an older woman portrayed on screen as successful and sexually attractive.

ELEGY played Berlin 2008 and was released in Spain earlier this year. It is currently on release in the UK, US and Canada and opens next weekend in Austria, Germany and Russia. It opens on August 28th in the Netherlands; on September 13th in the Czech Republic; on October 22nd in Belgium; on November 27th in Mexico; and on December 4th in Argentina.

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