David Lurie (John Malkovich), a divorced professor of romantic poetry in post-apartheid South Africa, is a flawed womanizer. With a reputation as an abuser of his female students, he has an affair with one of his mixed-race students, Melanie Isaacs (Antoinette Engel), and all hell breaks loose—completely upsetting his life.
He repairs to the home of his daughter, Lucy (Jessica Haines), who lives in the South African outback, where a brutal attack on the two of them by three blacks leaves them emotionally devastated.
This is a complex story about emotions, relationships, using people and making compromises, a metaphor for the disintegration of society as a whole. It’s wonderfully acted by Malkovich but especially by Engel. Director Steve Jacobs has ably translated the much-praised novel to the screen using a terrific screenplay by producer Anna-Maria Monticelli from a screenplay by Anna-Maria Monticelli from the novel by Nobel Laureate J.M. Coetzee.
Monticelli was conscientious in that she wanted to be faithful to the letter and spirit of what Coetzee said in the book, and to ensure that the integrity of his spare novel was not sacrificed. But once he approved the script he took no part in the filmmaking.
Lucy has a black worker, Petrus (Eriq Ebouaney) who helps her out but he turns out to be much more than an accommodating neighbor. When David arrives at Lucy’s abode, suddenly there is a role reversal of racial relationships and political correctness. There’s a lot more to this film than simply the story of what happens to a man because of an indiscreet affair.
There are two scenes, especially, that set the tone of the movie. The first is when David brings Melanie home; he looks in the mirror and sees a Byronic seducer. Jump to later in the film, after he has been beaten by his black attackers, he looks in the mirror again and sees a bruised, bandaged man, and extremely humbled from the first look. These scenes symmetrically correspond to the eloquence and economy of Coetzee’s language in his novel.
Dogs were an important part of Coetzee’s novel, and his concern has been translated into the movie in some of its most emotionally violent scenes. But Jacobs says, “Everything is off-screen and told through the magic of sound manipulation… No actual animals used in the film have their cries of distress on our soundtrack.”