Near the beginning of Disgrace, an anonymous threat—“Your days are over Casanova”—appears scrawled on the blackboard of literature professor David Lurie (John Malkovich). This is after his affair with a student 30 years his junior has resulted in a sexual harassment complaint and word has spread across the campus. It’s not the age gap that sparks outrage, but the realities of Lurie being white and privileged, the student being biracial, and this being post-Apartheid South Africa, a society presented here, as in J.M. Coetzee’s Booker Prize-winning novel, as boiling over with racial animosity as it lumbers forward with a program of transformative cultural and political reform that’s anathema to much of the disenfranchised white minority.
Matching a drab, natural light palette and minimalist framing to a sober story in the neorealist tradition of digesting uncomfortable truths, director Steve Jacobs manages to locate the raw beauty of Cape Town here and there, as in an early encounter at a seaside restaurant during which Lurie commences a painfully one-sided wooing of the young girl; the rain and roiling waves that almost beat against the windows augment the tumult in her eyes, though he ignores this red flag, just as he dismisses the implications of her slack, submissive posture and averted gaze during their robotic sex.
Hauled in front of a disciplinary panel that is bewildered by his unapologetic posture as a Byronic cad, Lurie refuses to prostrate himself and is unceremoniously spit out of the system as an obsolete man. Literary convention predicts his next move, to the countryside home of his rustic, independent daughter Lucy (Jessica Haines) where rural values can work their magic and a restoration of self and a sense of belonging can take hold, but all that’s actually found are further dousings of cold reality, which Jacobs produces at an unrelenting pace that mimics the famously slim book.
Discomfited by Lucy’s allowing black, middle-aged handyman Petrus (Eriq Ebouaney, a standout) to live on the property and have the run of the house, Lurie’s fears are quickly realized when a trio of black bandits, conveniently including a relative of Petrus, arrive to rob the home and terrorize the occupants. Doused with gas, torched, and locked in a bathroom to burn, Lurie is helpless as the trio gang rapes Lucy, an event that occurs off screen but is alarmingly conveyed in a single, bracing shot of her opening the bathroom door, newly changed into a robe. The gang’s parting assault, the systematic shooting of Lucy’s caged dogs, is partially obscured for the audience’s sake, a misstep on Jacobs’s part as the scene consequently loses the weight of Coetzee’s corresponding passage, which pointedly lingers on the dogs’ suffering instead of Lucy’s, foreshadowing her transformation into a heeled martyr who dares not express her own pain or seek out any legal remedy, believing her suffering to be justified by the sins of her forefathers.
Robbed of the twin pillars of his vanity, namely his handsome features and his idealized image of Lucy as a fighting spirit and an ideological kin, Lurie convalesces and despairs as Petrus first begins a new building project on the property with unaccounted-for funds and later moves in new family members, including the rapist relative, for whom he makes no apology. Blinking calmly from behind thick glasses and offering insincere platitudes when confronted by an outraged Lurie, Petrus is a controversial portrait of the ascendant South African man, an emblem of a new patriarchy as blankly insensitive to minority concerns as the colonialists who begat Lurie were to his people. Petrus’s eventual offer-you-can’t-refuse of marriage to Lucy, proffered after learning she is pregnant from the attack (the rapist is too young to marry her himself, he helpfully explains) and Lucy’s near-grateful acceptance, if taken at face value, amounts to a radical proposition that women’s rights and other tenets of Western liberalism are conditional and potentially indefensible in a society that has not absorbed them naturally; they presumably go out with the bathwater of Apartheid in Coetzee’s cynical view, useless relics like the shelves of Byron scholarship seen in Lurie’s apartment after his ouster.
It’s not Coetzee’s assertion that the white minority South Africans must go a ways toward assimilating into African life to remain relevant that invites deep scrutiny, but the narrow vision presented here of Africanization as something akin to wilding, a degrading process which is inconsistent not just with colonialist entitlement but basic human rights. Although Lurie eventually comes to a quiet, ambiguous acceptance of his own family’s status and future, it’s his late, embittered aside—“How humiliating, to end like this”—that lingers and supports the nagging feeling that Disgrace is more preoccupied with an ending than a beginning.