Penelope Cruz in Elegy
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)

20 Responses to “Review: Elegy (2008) *** 1/2”

  1. “The story borders on melodrama a number of times, but it never quite goes over that edge.”

    For me it did go over, but I can see why you might feel it rescued itself. I thought Kingsley’s performance was flat and cliched, but I liked Cruz, Clarkson, Skarsgaard and even Hopper.

    In your hedging-your-bets paragraph, I do completely agree with you on the film’s appeal to intellectual issues over emotional ones, but I felt it tried to succeed on both counts, with that melodramtic finale, which I felt was bettered even in Hiller’s LOVE STORY (1970), a film I wouldn’t place on any all-time best lists.
    I enjoyed your narrative recapitulation, cleanly and lyrically penned. I well remember that “War and Peace” thread near the beginning–that was amusing for sure.

    Nice work as always.

  2. See, I didn’t feel like it was even trying for Love Story territory. If I had, I would’ve rejected it. Ironically, it was that lack of emotional component that kept the film from being a knockout, but if it had been in there, the story might have bugged me.

    As it is, it finds an acceptable if unremarkable middle ground.

    I suspect if you had simply been more taken with Kingsley’s performance as I was, you would’ve been more satisfied overall.

    The fact that it took me two weeks to get this review up says more than anything probably.

  3. Fair enough Craig, and I suspect you are right about Kingsley performance being a catalyst to buying this film.

  4. I plan on seeing this in the next couple of weeks, so I could only glance at certain parts of the review.

    To make up for that, I’ll stare at the picture of Penelope Cruz. I’m sure I’ll get something out of that.

  5. She added an extra star to the rating of this film. You may understand when you see it.

  6. I cannot wait to see it, based on the trailer, I think I’ll like it, but you never know.

  7. It’s not doing too well with critics Nick and I’m surprised. as I said in the review I’ve cooled on it, but I really liked it when I first saw it.

  8. uh craig…Deborah Harry had even less to do than hopper. and i liked hopper in this…

    and i liked this alot more than vicky cb. but as i say when i a film has a lower rating on metacritic it’s often better for me. so take that kids…..

    i’d also rather see cruz get a nom for her role here9if she’s gonna get a nom) than for the supporting actor nom people want to hand to her right now.

    elegy can at a good time for me. i’d seen so many films in the theatres and not cared recntly has that includes stuff the lic crew won’t shut up about ala tell no one or the last mistress.and i just walk away saying…’uh no’

    so thanks to the wonders of the free screening i gave ‘elegy’ a try. and thank god or whomever something i think is decent to see finally…. :)

    craig is they’re a film in 2008 that will have bigger/more numberous use of cell phones or wine drinking. i think not…. ;)

    and when was the last time you saw a movie that had a chracter use a landline/main line phone ??? i want to know… ???? ;)

    i’m sorry i don’t feel bad saying i wan’t wowed by the last mistress/teel no one especially with everyone raving. it;s not like it’s gonna hurt those films abit.

    uh unlike a certain film i love this year that got nothing but bad reviews/when it even got a review. yeah bet that hurts.evryone go back to to you pixar nation..and hide… ;)

    so yes i support ‘elegy’. this keeps my tradition of liking films this year that can’t over 72%(or whatever ) at meteacritic intact…. it’s the geek intact. hitting the glass ceiling now… ;)

    ok with the expection of ‘paranoid park’. nothing i’ve like rated very high…..

    let’s see you you say that ??? didn’t think so…

    maybe it’s time i have arrived….but i can’t get far.i don’t have any money i don’t have a car.ha ha… :)

    craigs…reveiwes whine/complain about this movie being downbeat/depressing…to downbeat

    huh ????

    well if that’s so this didn’t bother me at all.hell i wonder if i even notice. my usal state of mind.being abit downbeat anyway this movies ‘tone’ barely registered.

    viva la geek and may the rest of 2008 bring waves of movies that get medicore reviews. take you oscar bait and stick it in your eye. yes baby. ;)

    yes baby i like it. :)

    special bonus for craig: the line i’m sticking with in this movie was tha clarkson/kingsley snippet.when she saying something similar to. ‘you shouln’t try to mess up waht we have/what we’ve got is pure f**King’

    yes i wish i remebered the exact quote…

    i mean sure this line is no ‘you come in my mouth and then you break up with me’ ;)

    but likely nothing else in 2008. well match that…

    although the ‘i want… a vagina’ segment from the wackness was ok.

    yep that’s what i’m gonna do mention very throw away slighly sexual line that the quote rama crowd isn’t gonna quote because it’s too lame/embarrassing/or throw away.

    and these bits are even lamer coming from a geek. oh yeah… :)

  9. I didn’t find Elegy a downer at all and I think I liked it better than most people, though not as well as you.

    I didn’t care for Last Mistress either. It was ok, not great.

    You sound bored with movies all around, Glimmer

  10. glim is just above it all, Craig.

    Our wondrous glim sees it all through his own unique prism…and right now he’s just venting on the general atrociousness of modern life and how film reflects on all of that.

    But this is precisely why we love him.

    He’ll find a film to adore that the mainstream embraces (somewhat, anyway) and then he’ll feel good again.

    glim is just a modern philosopher that’s momentarily disillusioned. But it’s only temporary.

    He’ll find something to be excited about.

    Sooner or later….

  11. I just saw this, and I have to write a review tonight….but I can’t really find anything to say beyond “The performances are good all around” and “Penelope Cruz has nice boobs”. I suppose that last comment is enough for some people though…

  12. hahahah. well, she does!

    If it makes you feel any better, I had the same problem as you which is why I sat on it for a couple of weeks. I liked it and all but….

  13. I had a hard time with the Cruz character. Her acting was solid, but I felt like she was more a personification of what the Kingsley character THINKS he wants from a romance with a younger woman than the reality of it.

    The fact that the director takes great pains to objectify and idolize Cruz on-screen didn’t help this feeling, and the movie slowly started to unravel for me with the scene of Cruz lying naked on the bed with only high heels on. Now it’s really a throwaway visual moment in the film and sure, Cruz is undeniably beautiful and sexy in this moment, but the shot itself makes no real sense. The Cruz character isn’t some vixen who would prance around in nothing but high heels and Kingsley’s character isn’t self-confident enough to demand it of her, so this shot was a big mental WTF moment for me that killed the movie.

    I might be making a lot of nothing here, but as the movie progressed I couldn’t help feel that all the ensuing melodrama was just an elaborate older male fantasy, complete with family reconciliation and a final third act twist that bordered on wish fulfillment.

    I did enjoy the acting, the movie was beautiful to look at, and I will never complain about the radiant and spectacular Penelope Cruz looking gorgeous on screen. I just wanted this movie to feel real.

  14. I agree with your first paragraph, but then the story is told from Kingsley’s point of view so a degree of fantasy fits. Kingsley objectified and idolized the character the same way the film did. Kingsley is sort of an unreliable narrator.

    I think the whole film could be read as a male fantasy, but I don’t think that’s a bad thing. Particularly because I have the sense that Kingsley actually grows as a character. A little too pat perhaps, but combined with the performances, the movie worked for me.

  15. I see what you’re getting at Craig. Kingsley IS an unreliable narrator and so from that point of view, various aspects of the movie fit his particular skewed view of himself and the other characters. I guess it just didn’t work for me as well as it did for you.

  16. Really nice review, Craig.

    I thought it was a mixed bag.

    Cruz is marvelous, though. Her talent is not invisible to me, no matter how beautiful she is.

  17. Before reading your take, I have to say I also found it a mixed bag, though with more good than bad.

    My initial enthusiasm for it waned quickly.

  18. fff

  19. The above submission was just a test to see if my submission went through, as I have been having difficulties with navigation. I already spoke my piece on ELEGY, which was rather problematic.

  20. I’ll be interested to see what you think of my take, Craig, as it shares numerous points with yours and ending with a similar, though significantly less admiring final interpretation. I agree with Sam that in spite of its strengths, I found it “rather problematic,” towards the end in particular.

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