Subtle Work of Meditation

Philip Roth is by far one of the finest American writers alive. Yet, we do not get to see many adaptations of his works on screen. The primary reason why his novels and stories are rarely adapted into films is that they are challengingly and effortfully filmable. It’s not easy to film stories about ideas, moods, and complex characters like those in his books. Yet, it’s not impossible to achieve such a task. Case in point: Isabel Coixet’s Elegy, premiered at the 2008 Berlinale, an adaptation of Roth’s novella The Dying Animal. Roth’s book offers various kinds of potential for greatness here and certainly Coixet does not hold back in reshaping her poignant source material.

A 70-year-oldNew arrogant York cultural critic and university professor David Kepesh (Ben Kingsley) has achieved a modest degree of celebrity by reviewing books on NPR and hosting a local television show called “Book Chat.” Early on, he is promoting his latest work about hedonism on the Charlie Rose program. The film follows the reflections on an affair he had with a grad student eight years before. Once married and divorced, he has a son Kenny (Peter Sarsgaard), a doctor who has never forgiven him for leaving his mother to devote himself without distraction to pleasures of both the mind and the flesh. They still remain disunited. His relationships with women are usually casual and brief. Each year Kepesh selects one of his students for seduction, and the student who is the object of rumination here is a Cuban-American named Consuela Castillo (Penelope Cruz) a beautiful and confident student who attends one of his lectures. She captures his attention like no other woman, and to his surprise, they begin a serious relationship. Kepesh is also in a casual relationship with Carolyn (Patricia Clarkson) who eventually leaves him. In Kepesh’s orbit, Carolyn, Kenny, and his friend, Pulitzer-Prize winning poet George O’Hearn (Dennis Hopper) offer dimensional support.

Though the credit may go to Nicholas Meyer’s well-structured and finely modulated scenario of brilliance and dark wit, Coixet has a gift for painterly composition, translating Roth’s subtle work of meditation on mortality, uncommitment, aging, obsession and lust, with effortless elegance. Both are able to handle Roth’s learned, emotionally disparate passages and put out all the lyrically poignant nuance with sensitivity and precision. Her film is surely a feast for the eyes with its tone and style complementing the novella it adapts. Coixet clearly comprehends, deciphers, and penetrates deep into the psyche and forces us to confront our fear of death.

Kingsley, in his fine form — both artistically and physically, does not deliver a character that begs viewers’ sympathy, but offers calm, assured, and composed pleasures with his alert eyes and fierce, piercing look. He nails the part as an aging professor, who’s outwardly confident yet at the same time lonely and troubled, bringing his sharp intelligence and puzzlingly precise skills to a complex role that feels lived-in, and emotionally vulnerable. Wonderful Cruz, playing one of her more challenging characters, delivers a moving performance in her magnetic gestures with him as she completely embodies the sort of breathtaking female that provokes passion and obsession in men. Observe the deeply affecting shift in the final reel where they have artistically taken the heart and soul out of Roth’s creation.

Clarkson’s Carolyn as a world-weary mistress provides a nuanced counterpart to Kepesh’s character who, like Consuela, once Kepesh’s conquest student and lover, has shared a sexual connection with Kepesh for twenty years without entanglement or commitment. Hopper, in particular, is excellent in role against type, and has a strong concluding moment. As Kapesh’s best friend and confidante, he brings professionalism and personal charisma to the role of the poet who warns his old friend and fellow womanizer Kepesh to separate between sexual adventure and real life. Sarsgaard also renders another stellar performance here. He plays Kenny, a repressed and judgmental grown-up son who still feels deep resentment for his father’s infidelities, and has always defined himself in opposition to his father. And though he’s a successful physician, his old anger continues to fuel him. The ensemble is a exceptionally intriguing mix of personalities. There is no escape from them when they are present and the whole cast draws the audience deep into their character.

Literally, an elegy is a mournful, melancholy, or plaintive poem composed to lament a death, and the film promises death in the story, not only of people, but also metaphorically of relationships and even one’s youth. Though a bit grievous as a dirge of a film that is remarkably intimate, Coixet’s Elegy, an absorbing adaptation of Roth, is a beautifully produced drama that’s emotionally engaging as it should be. It is gorgeously shot throughout as a thoughtful and profound study,  with powerful scenes and the complex emotions at play.

Rating: 4/5

To see Elegy in theatres, check your local listings.

Criticetc is a journalism/book/film critic in Bangkok and Pattaya, and at  and

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