Elegy

a film directed by Isobel Coixet.

Few films I have seen recently have achieved so well, so elegantly, a portrait of the complexity of modern life. Ben Kingsley with his powerful nose and his blunt skull is a wonderful canvas on which to paint the feelings of this older man, Kapesh, as he, in turn, meets, becomes involved with, jealous of, and eventually obsessed by Consuela, played by the exquisite, extraordinary Penelope Cruz. Few films have managed better that difficult task of transferring a novel into film (although it needs to be said that there have been several successes in this field recently: Revolutionary Road and The Reader, but two examples).

With Elegy, however, even more than these other two, perhaps because it is such a reflective film, a film which centres its attention on the inner person, a film which succeeds so well at mood and moment through the depiction of simple scenes – a man alone in an apartment without the lights on, a squash ball rolling against the court wall – the rather odd, even mean, question comes to mind: why bother?

Elegy, of course, is the film adaptation of Philip Roth’s novel A Dying Animal. The book, which came out only a few years ago, is not large, it is, really, a novella, and was a particularly beautiful object in itself, it’s slip-case dark red, the shade taken from the drapes behind the Modigliani nude which adorned its cover. The title came from the poem by W.B. Yeats. It is a masterful work. It came after Roth had finished the American Pastoral trilogy, the final book of which was The Human Stain. These three novels: that one, I Married a Communist and American Pastoral were notable for a kind of restrained verbosity, an outpouring of words which were, nonetheless, calculated. A Dying Animal is their obverse, their counter-side. It is brief, exact, crude, honest. It might almost be possible to read it in the time it would take to watch the film.

Which is why I wonder that someone would bother. The work is already there. Elegy, of course, grants us Penelope Cruz as a siren on whose rocks we can easily imagine ourselves coming aground. But when reading Roth I already had my own siren who looked and felt like herself.

It’s not, don’t get me wrong, that I think Elegy was a waste of time. I think it will be out there in the world now, being appreciated by people for years to come. Every one of the actors is excellent, Dennis Hopper, Peter Sarsgaard, the direction is subtle and concise. What I wonder is this: Why can’t film writers make up their own stories? Why do they always have to plunder books? Why do they have to be illustrated novels? Are script-writers so devoid of imagination that they cannot think meaningful ideas up for themselves? Are we as a society so incapable of imagining that people could read that we have to take everything worthwhile in a book and translate it into a picture? Bearing in mind that books so rarely adapt well to cinema if only because films made from books are always going to be a distillation of a certain essence of the story, limited as they are to their prescribed 120 minutes.

I think the reason that cinema so often disappoints – failing at what it sets out to achieve – is that, so often, there is an emptiness at the heart of the story. It is a cliché to complain about the proportion of a film’s budget spent on the script, but I refer to more than that: what I mean is that rarely has the script been created specifically for the medium.

Cinema, more than any other art, has only the surfaces to deal with and it is one of the miracles of the screen that it can sometimes use these flat planes, these massive two dimensional moving images to point to deeper parts of ourselves. The problem is that the surfaces are so seductive in themselves that more often than not what is being produced are machines for stars to wander about in rather than stories which are designed at their very core to use these tools to pierce the bubble of imagery and touch us. Or even entertain us.

The stories are adaptations of stories which moved us when we received them in a completely different form and that form is coded in their DNA. Why should it be otherwise? Consider the disdain with which ‘the novel based on the film’ is regarded. Perhaps, while acknowledging the beauty of Elegy, it might be possible to ask cinema to grow up, to write it’s own tales.

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