Through the magic of Netflix Watch Instantly – which seems to be delivering much better quality image than it used to – tonight I saw one of the films I had been eager to catch last year but missed due to unhelpful film distribution patterns/other commitments/laziness. ‘Elegy’, a film based on a Philip Roth story, with Ben Kingsley and Penelope Cruz as lovers, Dennis Hopper as Kingsley’s best friend, Deborah Harry as Hopper’s wife, Patricia Clarkson as Kingsley’s long term girlfriend, and Peter Sarsgaard as Kingsley’s son proclaims itself a desirable prospect from its casting alone. Its director, Isabel Coixet, made two of the best interior dramas of the past few years in ‘The Secret Life of Words’ and ‘My Life Without Me’.
It’s a gorgeous film, thoughtful and ruminative about life and love, ageing and death; a film in which the New York of Woody Allen’s serious side is a character (even though the movie was shot mostly in Vancouver). It’s about what happens when a person prefers their career over being with other people; when one allows even a little celebrity to take over the priorities of human relationships; when a person believes their own propaganda.
It’s also about cities and how they can affect people – in this movie they look at each other through windows, across courtyards, in nightclubs and taxis, and they’re scared to say what they think or even to really know what they want. But maybe not always.
Of course, Philip Roth is known for being a serious man – too serious, according to his ex-wife Claire Bloom’s extremely sad memoir – and this is a film based on a novel called ‘The Dying Animal’, so don’t expect an adrenaline-fuelled thrill ride. Actually, maybe that’s not a bad description, for ‘Elegy’ is an exhilirating piece of work, utterly gripping, full of life despite, being rooted in its emotional context, which is in the shade, to say the least. And, to explain the title of this post, all the performances are excellent – these people feel real. Ben Kingsley enunciates like he’s going to die if he speaks too quickly; his posture implies a sense of such fear that he’ll lose everything that you want to reach out and tickle him or send him to a hospital. Penelope Cruz in particular re-asserts the vulnerability she showed in ‘Abre los Ojos’ and its remake ‘Vanilla Sky’. My genial co-host at http://www.thefilmtalk.com and I were mightily disappointed by ‘Vicky Cristina Barcelona’, for which Cruz won an Oscar. Not that I begrudge people winning prizes, but she stole that one from herself.