DIR: Isabel Coixet • WRI: Nicholas Meyer • PRO: Andre Lamal, Gary Lucchesi, Tom Rosenberg • DOP: Jean-Claude Larrieu • ED: Amy E. Duddleston • DES: Claude Paré • CAST: Penélope Cruz, Ben Kingsley, Patricia Clarkson, Peter Sarsgaard
A scene early on in Elegy sees Ben Kingsley’s ageing professor show Penelope Cruz’s character his darkroom. He comments that he never uses it anymore, and that he really should switch to digital photography, but he doesn’t understand it. Cruz looks at him knowingly, and disagrees: ‘Of course you do’. It’s a fleeting moment, but it’s one that neatly sums up Kingsley’s character. This is a highly intelligent, educated man, who has developed a remarkable talent for kidding himself.
Based on Philip Roth’s novel The Dying Animal, Elegy is a smart, character-driven drama that avoids the traps that other films of this nature (such as the last Philip Roth adaptation, The Human Stain) frequently fall into. We first see dry academic David Kepesh (Kingsley) on a talk show, discussing ideas of sexual happiness and independence, and how they have influenced the course of his life. The rest of the film is an extension of these themes. Having left his wife at a young age, Kepesh has lived a life based around such freedoms; a popular lecturer, he admits to regularly sleeping with his students, usually through his end-of-term cocktail parties (in an amusing aside, he makes it clear that he only does this after he has given them their results). It is through one such party that he connects with Consuela (Cruz), an intriguing student thirty years his junior. Kepesh begins to find himself establishing a relationship and falling in love with her, and as a result questioning his values and ideas.
Kingsley’s name is no longer the seal of quality it once was – you may have seen him embarrass himself in The Love Guru – so it’s refreshing to find that Isabel Coixet’s film is an above-average piece of work. Initially, the mood appears to be one of consistent, dreary navel gazing, but thankfully both the character and film are blessed with a sense of humour and self-awareness that rescues them from self-pity. Kepesh is introspective, but frank; his voice over is frequently very funny, and the fact that the film stars Dennis ‘Mad Bomber from Speed’ Hopper as a Pulitzer Prize winning poet (!) erases a lot of potential intellectual snobbery too. When Kepesh finds himself – in his 60s – as afraid of commitment and emotional honesty as a teenager, he is just as aware of the irony and ludicrousness of the situation as the audience, a fact that makes for a fascinating and believable character. Hopper aside, the film is populated with characters like this; believably flawed without being dislikeable or dull. Indie stalwart Patricia Clarkson shows up as a married woman who provides Kepesh with regular, no-strings attached sex, and the always welcome Peter Sarsgaard is superb in a handful of scenes as Kepesh’s son, who takes pride in a moral superiority over his absent father, only to find himself just as fallible. Cruz, while older than her character and not quite as instantly attractive, does a fine job in a role that requires her to come across wiser than a man thirty years her senior.
Regularly treading the fine line between intelligent and indulgent, the film nearly tips over into the latter as the seemingly-obligatory-for-this-sort-of-thing-terminal-illness plotline rears its ugly head, and an unimaginative soundtrack doesn’t help. Ultimately, though, the strength of the performances and the witty, acerbic nature of the piece win out, and instead, the film remains a smart, engaging work, one that succeeds in being entertaining and genuinely intelligent in spite of itself.