Elegy charts the passionate relationship between a celebrated New York college professor, David Kepesh (Kingsley) and a young Cuban-born woman, Consuela Castillo (Cruz) whose beauty both ravishes and destablises him. As their intimate connection transforms them – more than either could imagine – a charged sexual contest evolves into an indelible love story. With humanistic warmth, wry wit and erotic intensity Elegy explores the power of beauty to blind, to reveal and transform. On the one hand a shattering, heartfelt romantic drama, Elegy is also a complex, intelligent and unflinchingly honest meditation on lust, mortality, family, male friendship, intimacy and commitment.

An examination of control and commitment.

Intellectual vigour is no match for carnal desire in Catalan director Isabel Coixet’s perceptive adaptation of a Philip Roth novella (The Dying Animal) about the relationship between a literature professor and his student. Paging through a book full of reproductions of classic Spanish paintings, David Kapesh (Ben Kingsley), a cultural critic and teacher whose writing has given him a public profile in New York, compares the younger woman sitting beside him, his attentive student Consuela Castillo (Penelope Cruz), to 'a work of art". It is a dangerous compliment in his hands.

David, who also admires her as a figure out of Goya’s work, use high art and his extensive knowledge to at once impress and woo Consuela, but also to allow himself to segment her amongst his good taste and classical opinions. It is, ultimately, easier for him to lavish references on a beautiful figure and rhapsodise her image than it is to address the real person and what she may actually want from him. David lectures his pupils on 'the carnal aspects of the human comedy" and it is soon apparent that he has first hand experience in the matter.

There are two distinct approaches at work here. Roth is a writer of great self-enquiry, his books charged with extended interior monologues that puzzle over the ways to live your life until death intervenes. Coixet, whose previous work includes 2003’s touching My Life Without Me, works at the moments where introspective characters must open themselves up to each other. Her protagonists gently crash into each other at oblique angles. Elegy – adapted by Nicholas Meyer, who previously did Roth a disservice with 2003’s The Human Stain – bends the two to each and, surprisingly, neither breaks.

The casting is astute. With the expressive lumps on the back of his bald head, Kingsley has a bullish quality to him; he’s never entirely put aside the maniacal Don Logan from 2000’s Sexy Beast. David’s gaze is admiring and rapacious and he has a life of controlled one-on-one encounters: regular trysts with his longtime mistress (Patricia Clarkson), philosophical discussions with a poet friend (Dennis Hopper) and terse arguments with his estranged son (Peter Sarsgaard). What frightens him about Consuela is that she challenges his authority and distance – invited to meet her family at a celebration he abstains, making a pitiful excuse he knows she doesn’t believe.

The respective strength of Kingsley and Cruz makes the movie less about their age difference than an examination of control and commitment. He considers himself a realist, she sees a cynic. Coixet finds unexpected weaknesses in both characters that prove to be illuminating. Consuela, for example, is emotionally satiated by the physical worship David bestows on her body. The final act draws on the sudden spectre of mortality, an interest of both Roth and Coixet, but from an unexpected angle. That the memory both David and Consuela agree upon is a photograph harks back to the images displayed in their first meetings: here culture is ultimately a refuge, not an answer.


Watch 'Elegy'

Wednesday 5 August, 7:30pm on SBS World Movies
Saturday 8 August, 1:55am on SBS World Movies
Monday 10 August, 11:55pm on SBS World Movies

Now streaming at SBS On Demand 

UK, 2008
Genre: Drama, Romance
Language: English
Director: Isabel Coixet
Starring: Dennis Hopper, Peter Sarsgaard, Patricia Clarkson, Penélope Cruz, Ben Kingsley

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In Cinemas 09 April 2009,
Thu, 08/06/2009 - 11