John Malkovich is J. M. Coetzee's exploiting and put-upon professor
John Malkovich is almost too perfect for the part of Disgrace's David Lurie. His patina of erudition, his reptilian eroticism, and the air of amoral self-absorption he so often embodies onscreen all fit the protagonist of J.M. Coetzee's 1999 novel like a bespoke suit, but putting him at the center of a Job-like two-hour travail almost makes you long for someone slightly more likeable to watch suffer. Then again Coetzee's novel and Steve Jacobs' faithful adaptation are, in a way, about what we get rather than what we want or think we deserve.
A chilly white literature professor at a South African university, Lurie embarks on an affair with brown-skinned student Melanie (Antoinette Engel), although calling it an affair makes it sound like fun. The way her foot absently dandles during their first tryst, the excruciating slowness with which she later joins him in bed, underline his heedless abuse of his power over her. David's actions, and his casually defiant lack of remorse for them, lose him his standing and his job and send him on a road trip to visit his earth-mama daughter Lucy (Jessica Haines) at her remote farm, which she shares with black tenant Petrus (Lumumba's Eriq Ebouaney). Not feeling his wounds, much less licking them, David helps out around the farm and at a local animal shelter until a savage attack by a trio of black youths mortally injures his remaining illusions regarding what his life has become.
The predatory affair with the darker-skinned student, followed by the white characters' slow-dawning realization that they have no power over the land they own, or the blacks who "owned" it before them, set up obvious allegorical resonances with South African society, pre- and post-apartheid. But Coetzee's book, adapted here by Anna Maria Monticelli, isn't so simplistic. While David's experiences with external forces drive the plot, the real story centers on his internal struggle. A specialist in Byron, he espouses the poet's imperious view of individual passion as cause and license, despite having outlived the youth that fueled the Romantics' fires. As the cosmopolitan life he enjoyed and the comforts and assumptions that came with it fall away, he comes to rethink the value of his desire and pride and acquaint himself with the basic acceptance of what any given day, or any given person, has in store, whether it's a companionable roll on the floor or the knowledge of death.
It's a painful process, and not always easy to watch as David, Lucy, and Petrus each make decisions that they all three must live with, for better or worse. But Malkovich's adroit embodiment of David, aided by Jacobs' light touch, makes each step of the journey clear and memorable.