Penélope Cruz in Elegy
Based on Philip Roth’s novel The Dying Animal, Isabel Coixet’s romantic drama Elegy stars Ben Kingsley as David Kepesh, a college literature professor who spent the sexual revolution of the ’60s married. Eventually abandoning his wife and son, he spent the ensuing years making up for lost time, jumping from one woman to the next.
His preferred form of conquest is singling out one of his graduate students each term and then seducing her once grades have been handed out. These are temporary affairs. The idea being perhaps that a man unanchored has no reference point for the passage of time and in this way he can somehow remain young. It’s a fallacy of course and in his desperation to postpone aging, Kepesh has also failed to ever truly grow up. So it is that he begins the film as a typical middle-aged infant.
Interestingly, the first lesson he teaches his students every year is that the passage of time is vital to the appreciation of literature. Reading War and Peace and then reading it again ten years later are two very different experiences. The act of reading involves an alchemy between the reader and the words and as the reader grows and changes, so does the literary experience. It’s a concept that also applies to interpersonal relationships, but it’s a lesson Kepesh does not begin to learn until a beautiful new student walks into his classroom.
Penélope Cruz is Consuela, Kepesh’s target for the semester. He’s first attracted to her beauty, but when their relationship finally blooms, she proves to be more than the usual grad student. She’s radiant and sexy of course, but there’s something else. She has arrived at college later in life and she’s not the typical starry-eyed student. She’s a woman with maturity, sensitivity and intelligence. She even has a kind of Old World innocence. She’s a throwback to another era and perhaps for Kepesh she’s a chance to start over.
For her part, she sees in him a creative, educated, literate man who offers a kind of romantic excitement she can’t get in men closer to her own age. However, as they begin to fall deeper in love, the age difference begins to show itself and for the first time in memory, Kepesh begins to feel insecure. His paranoia fanned by poet friend Dennis Hopper, he eventually begins to sabotage the relationship.
Through a series of dramas and complications, the question becomes whether Kepesh will grow up in time to hang on to Consuela. There is also the issue of his damaged relationship with son Peter Sarsgaard, a successful doctor who is befuddled with an unsorted rage toward his father. He’s unsure if he wants approval, an apology or if he simply wants to be better than dad and the two go at each other like the stunted man-children they are.
The story borders on melodrama a number of times, but it never quite goes over that edge. Dramatic events don’t feel calculated to prey on the audience’s emotions, but are rather crucibles offering the characters opportunities for redemption. Whether or not they take advantage of those opportunities is the crux of the story.
As Kepesh, Ben Kingsley is terrific. He’s playing a difficult and not altogether likeable character, but he fills him with such unspoken fear and uncertainty that it’s easy to sympathize with him even as you grit your teeth at some of his childish actions. This is a stripped down performance from what we’ve come to expect. An actor who is occasionally accused of chewing the scenery, this instead is Kingsley unplugged. There are no accents or mannerisms or overly dramatic scenes to hide behind. He’s acting without a net and he’s wonderful.
Easily his match is Penélope Cruz who is having quite a year so far herself. She’s a woman who could coast on being beautiful, but she digs into her role and she sells you on Consuela’s intelligence and complexity. A man like Kepesh has his pick of beautiful young women, but it takes something special to get under his skin. Consuela isn’t a woman for a one-night stand. She’s a woman you fall in love with and as played by Cruz, you believe it.
Peter Sarsgaard is also good as Kepesh’s frustrated son Kenny and Patricia Clarkson delivers in yet another small part, this time as one of Kepesh’s former students and occasional bedmate. Dennis Hopper is less successful as the poet George O’Hearn. Reduced to occasionally popping up to spout some fortune cookie wisdom about the nature of men and women and then becoming a dramatic plot point, Hopper isn’t given much to do and he doesn’t leave much of a mark. Better in a smaller role as George’s wife is Deborah Harry.
Overall, the acting is top notch and Elegy is an intelligent, nice looking film, but the problem is that it seems to work on your intellect rather than on your emotions. I found myself enjoying it in the moment, but it hasn’t resonated and I’ve thought about it less and less as time has passed. Nevertheless, it’s still a good movie and fans of Kingsley and Cruz will definitely want to have a look.
Elegy. USA 2008. Directed by Isabel Coixet. Written by Nicholas Meyer from a book by Philip Roth. Cinematography by Jean-Claude Larrieu. Edited by Amy E. Duddleston. Starring Ben Kingsley, Penélope Cruz, Peter Sarsgaard, Dennis Hopper, Patricia Clarkson and Deborah Harry. 1 hour 48 minutes. MPAA rated R for sexuality, nudity and language. 3.5 stars (out of 5)