ELEGY COMES WITH impressive baggage: It’s based on a novel by Philip Roth, directed by the Isabel Coixet (best known for the difficult but unforgettable The Secret Life of Words) and stars heavyweights like Ben Kingsley and Dennis Hopper with the superb Penélope Cruz. Perhaps, it’s these expectations that are to blame. Elegy is among the most disappointing films I’ve seen in a long time.
David Kepesh (Kingsley) is a sixty-something New York professor who’s a bit of a Renaissance man — he teaches critical theory, reviews theatre, plays the piano and even develops his own photographs, while regularly appearing on television to critique America’s puritan heritage. He also makes full use of this high-culture persona to seduce whichever of his students takes his fancy — being careful to do so after grades have been handed out, of course. Then one such affair — with gorgeous Cuban-American student Consuela Castillo (Penélope Cruz in ridiculously infantilising bangs) — ends up becoming much more complicated than Kepesh can handle: she falls in love with him.
Kingsley brings to the role the requisite, if slightly distasteful, rakishness, but everything he does and says seems so trite and well-rehearsed (“You know something, you’re a work of art”) that it’s hard to see what the sincere, watchful Consuela sees in him. Coixet’s deliberately composed frames and too tasteful lighting don’t help dispel the sense of stagey-ness.
The film’s first half is faithfully Roth, in that the women are beautiful cyphers and the few scenes that ring true are the ones between men: Kepesh exchanging confidences with old friend George O’Hearn (Dennis Hopper) or battling his estranged son (Peter Sarsgaard). Patricia Clarkson, Kepesh’s longtime nostrings- attached lover, is fascinating but gets too little screentime. The only thing one can say in favour of the film’s blinkered male point of view is that it’s made explicit by the male characters themselves: “Beautiful women are invisible,” Hopper muses at one point, “we never see them — because we’re blocked by the beauty barrier”. In a script so heavily tilted against its women, Cruz’s heartfelt performance is nothing short of miraculous. While it’s hard to find her believable at first, she holds attention, managing to pull off the melodramatic second half with disarming vulnerability. It’s almost worth watching just for her. Almost.