Disgrace

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Director Steve Jacobs; Release date: out now

Disgrace - adapted from the 1999 Booker Prize-winning novel by South African writer J M Coetzee and starring John Malkovich - is a film played out in city and countryside, in the university and on the farm, which none too subtly explores Coetzee's take on sexual alienation during the decline of white rule.

It tells the story of a failing, middle-aged, white professor of literature and his relationship with women, with characters serving as metaphors for the assertion of black self-governance or for white rule.

Lost and confused in the new world where his lectures on romantic poetry have nothing to say to his students, David Lurie finds his white skin, money and position afford him the ability to buy black prostitutes or intimidate young black students into having sex with him, but not to control the outcome. Race is not mentioned - as if it has no relevance to the way in which Lurie expects to stalk these women and take what he wants. Disgraced when a student speaks up, Lurie declares it his right.

We move then to the country and to a visit with Lurie's lesbian daughter, Lucy. She farms the Eastern Cape, easily sharing her life with the black people around her. She shocks her father by opening her home to her black neighbour, Petrus, who has recently bought land from her with a government grant.

It appears at first a successful relationship, despite Lurie's reservations. But ultimately his daughter too is the victim of sexual crimes for which she seems to have no remedy, and which she passively accepts, making her own body into a metaphor for the changing balance of power, telling her father this is how men are.

Director Steve Jacobs has stayed remarkably true to Coetzee's stark and simplistic story, removing only the ambiguity Coetzee presents of Lurie's relationship with student Melanie. He has made a profoundly disturbing film, in which women appear one-dimensional and are all alienated and unable to secure joy or dignity.

The presentation of the ghosts of apartheid devoid of all context identifies all too clearly with the deeply ingrained racism of so much of white liberal South Africa, presenting us with a world in which white folk are losing property, land and control via rape and violence.

The opening scene, I'm sure purposefully, echoes Cry Freedom, as Lurie stands at a window nervously peering between blinds to check the street while he explains how his workmates look through him now.

By removing history, wiping out the state, and dealing purely in the realm of individuals, we are invited to view Lurie's life as an overturning - a swapping of subordination in the new South Africa.

I am sure that I must have missed something - after all, this did win the Booker Prize. But having seen the film, and hating it, I read the book and found it no less disturbing.

Disgrace certainly says something about the alienation and confusion of those like Lurie in a South Africa where apartheid is gone but capitalism and all its attendant horrors prevent a new world from being born. But about the contradictions of society as a whole, or about women, it had nothing to say. I found it bleak, simplistic and uninformative.