Dir: Isabel Coixet. US. 2008. 108 mins.
After a couple of near misses, Isabel Coixet finally learns that less is more with Elegy. Her latest feature is an impressively-controlled melodrama that strips back Philip Roth's unsentimental 2001 novel of ageing male desire, The Dying Animal, and repackages it as a straight cross-generational love story.
Virtuoso performances from leads Penelope Cruz and Ben Kingsley - who is at the top of his game right now - inject the humanity into Nicholas Meyer's elegantly austere script, which could easily have played rather cold and over-literary with a different cast.
There's perhaps something a little claustrophobic about the exercise - which is filmed mostly inside in a dark palette. But the airlessness is a reflection of the world that Kingsley's character, a sophisticated, womanising, commitment-phobe university professor called David Kepesh, has built around himself.
The film itself, of course, inhabits the same world, and will be pitched theatrically at the highbrow commercial end of the market - the land of Atonement, though with more of an adult-oriented audience. Elegy is, at least in part, about being old and over-educated, and will play best to those who have had experience of either or both states.
We first see Kepesh - a writer and professor of literature - on a TV talk show, explaining his theory of 'sexual happiness'. He's something of a celebrity cultural pundit, popular with his students, especially the female ones (who he occasionally beds, though never before they've graduated).
But he's also a lonely, melancholy soul who finds it impossible to sustain a relationship. His one attempt at marriage ends in divorce, leaving Kepesh with a son, Kenny (a pitch-perfect Sarsgaard), who has never forgiven his father for walking out.
The closest he comes to a regular emotional gig is sex once every three weeks or so with Carolyn (Clarkson), a high-powered businesswoman. The other love of Kepesh's life - in a purely buddy sense - is his squash partner George (Hopper), a Pulitzer-prize-winning poet who can be relied on to give the wrong advice about women.
But then another student, sexy, self-assured Consuela Castillo (Cruz) enters his life. To cast Cruz as an object of desire with an updated Cleopatra hairdo is hardly original: but this is exactly what Kepesh is doing himself, and there's a nice play-off between his and the audience's voyeurism that is neatly turned around in the moving finale.
Cruz proves here what a fine actress she has become: she's always believable, and we get the fact that she has fallen in love with Kepesh well before he does. Kingsley, for his part, has learnt to tone down his penchant for mannerism, and turns in a finely-tuned performance as a man who, for all his learning, is emotionally stupid.
Meyer's script alternates between dark and light - some scenes, especially a father-son stand-off between Kepesh and David, have moments of high comedy.
Technically, the film is almost faultless: though set in the present day, the classical, mostly fixed camerawork, the measured editing, the austere production design and the careful choice of timeworn Manhattan locations gives it an unplaceable retro feel.
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Terry A Mackay
from Philip Roth's novel The Dying Animal