Blu-ray Review HTF Blu-ray Review: DISGRACE

Discussion in 'Blu-ray and UHD' started by Michael Reuben, May 1, 2010.

  1. Michael Reuben

    Michael Reuben Studio Mogul

    Feb 12, 1998
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    Disgrace (Blu-ray)

    Studio: Image Entertainment
    Rated: R
    Film Length: 118 minutes
    Aspect Ratio: 2.35:1
    HD Encoding: 1080p
    HD Codec: AVC
    Audio: English DTS-HD MA 5.1
    Subtitles: English SDH; Spanish
    MSRP: $35.98
    Disc Format: 1 25 GB
    Package: Keepcase
    Theatrical Release Date: Sept. 6, 2008 (Toronto Film Festival); Sept. 20, 2009 (U.S.)
    Blu-ray Release Date: Apr. 27, 2010


    Almost no one saw Disgrace, but it has distinguished fans. The film ranked fourth on Stephen King’s 2009 top ten list, and it made Roger Ebert’s list of the year’s ten best independent films. Stephen Holden of the New York Times also included it in his best of 2009. Now that Image is releasing Disgrace on DVD and Blu-ray, will the film be “discovered” by a general audience?

    Probably not. The very qualities that appealed to these aficionados make Disgrace hard to describe and, for many viewers, even harder to abide. The film’s protagonist is unlikable; his surroundings are alienated, hostile and often violent; and the story achieves a resolution that is, at best, tentative and cryptic. Disgrace is beautifully made, but it’s unsettling. (The novel on which the film is based, by Nobel Prize winner J.M. Coetzee, had the same design and often provokes angry reactions; just read some of the reviews at Amazon.)

    The Feature:

    Disclaimer: Although some of what follows may be considered a spoiler, I am not revealing anything beyond what appears in previously published reviews or the trailer.

    David Lurie (John Malkovich, perfectly cast) is a divorced professor in his fifties, who teaches literature at a university in Capetown, South Africa. His specialty is the English Romantic Poets, and he has an affinity for Lord Byron. But he has no apparent affinity for his students, to whom he lectures with a clipped disdain. It is unclear whether his sense of distance results from age or from the racial diversity that stares back at Lurie when he looks out over his classroom. (The film does not specify a date, but Coetzee’s novel was published in 1999, five years after the end of apartheid.)

    Lurie’s sexual tastes run toward women of color, preferably much younger. In the film’s opening scene, he is visiting an escort, who rejects his efforts to establish direct contact. Then Lurie sets his sights on an attractive student, Melanie (Antoinette Engl), who rebuffs his advances but is no match for her professor’s insistence. Lurie seems genuinely surprised when Melanie begins missing class, but then his classroom becomes a ghost town, and Lurie realizes he’s in trouble. He’s summoned before a disciplinary committee. In an almost theatrical act of defiance, Lurie offers no defense and leaves the university.

    Lurie drives out into the remote South African countryside to visit his daughter, Lucy (Jessica Haines), on the farm where she grows flowers and vegetables, which she sells at a local market. He has always been uncomfortable about Lucy’s isolation, and he likes it even less when he discovers that her former lover, Helen, has left her so that she’s now alone in the house. The only person in the immediate vicinity is Petrus (Eriq Ebouaney), a black man who is acquiring the neighboring land and attempting to develop it under a government program. Lurie decides to stay for an indefinite period. He contemplates composing an opera based on Byron’s poems.

    But everything changes when Lurie and Lucy return from a walk and are attacked by three young men. Lurie is badly injured, and Lucy is raped (off-screen). The rest of the film is about their very different responses to this vicious assault.

    Lurie’s studied pose as a rebel dissolves in the face of true violence. He immediately wants to involve the authorities and is baffled by Lucy’s refusal to pursue criminal charges. His concern intensifies when they recognize one of the men who attacked them at a gathering hosted by Petrus to celebrate the completion of his land purchase. All the while, Lucy refuses to explain herself to her father. When he presses the point, she ends the conversation by pointing out that men in South Africa consider rape a legitimate form of conquest, and he should understand that, being a man.

    Other significant events are best left for the viewer to discover, but Disgrace is not about solving a crime or obtaining justice. It’s a portrait of a man who no longer has any place in a society that is rapidly changing around him, and maybe doesn’t deserve one. It’s hard to miss the line between Lurie’s predatory behavior toward women and the brutal treatment Lucy suffers, even before Lucy explicitly draws the connection. Lurie’s was merely the gentrified version, dressed up with poetry and glib philosophy. Just before they were attacked, Lurie had been trying to explain his behavior by telling Lucy about a friend’s male dog, who became melancholy after being beaten every time a female aroused it. At that point, Lurie says, the dog had learned to hate its own nature and no longer had to be punished, because it was punishing itself. Shooting it would have been more humane. After the attack, one of the tasks with which Lurie fills his days is assisting Lucy’s veterinarian friend, Bev (Fiona Press), in euthanizing stray dogs. He observes to Lucy that it’s humiliating to end like this – like a dog.

    Disgrace was shot in what its director, Steve Jacobs, calls an “objective” style (I would call it “detached”). The camera typically hangs back and watches, rather than pushing in to underline emotions and reactions. This can be disquieting, especially with a script where much is left unsaid and no character delivers a “message” or explains what everything means. But discomfort is the intended effect. In his poetry classes, Lurie lectured with urbane ease about the satanic monster in Byron’s poems, but as we follow this colonialist relic through a landscape that his kind can no longer subjugate, we keep catching glimpses of true monstrosity (both past and present) afflicting this troubled realm. Lucy has her own ideas about how the monster can be tamed, and her choices will strike some viewers as insane, but they’re the only hopeful note in Disgrace’s melancholy chorus.


    Image has provided a terrific Blu-ray transfer, with superb detail. The landscape is crucial to Disgrace, and director Jacobs looked a long time before settling on a valley in Cedarburg in western South Africa as the location for Lucy’s farm. Everything was then designed and built to fit the film’s visual plan. The result is a vista that’s intriguingly beautiful but not inviting – indeed, the opposite. The film has numerous shots of lone cars or isolated figures moving through this wilderness, and the Blu-ray’s image delivers the appropriate sense of scale and desolation.

    Colors are relatively muted in most scenes (a decision the director and DP confirm in the interviews was deliberate), but they appear to be accurate, and black levels are solid. There is a subtle presence of grain indicating that, despite credits for a digital intermediate, the image for Disgrace has not been overly processed; it still looks like film.


    Disgrace has a subtle mix with a distinct sense of environment that’s always present but never overwhelming. From the opening shot, when David is standing at a window in Capetown, there is always some background noise appropriate to the locale. The city and country environments are as distinct aurally as visually. Occasionally, the sound design for Disgrace does something that seems to be going out of fashion lately in American films, which is to place a loud off-camera sound behind the viewer. It’s a risky choice, because it can startle you and take your eyes off the screen, but it can also be effective, as when David is awakened by Petrus’ machinery.

    The DTS lossless track delivers Disgrace’s careful mix with great precision, along with its spare score, which consists of classical selections and original music by Antony Partos. The dialogue is clearly rendered. I have to leave it to others to judge the authenticity of the accents.

    Special Features:

    All special features are in standard definition and enhanced for 16:9.

    Interviews. The disc includes a series of interviews with cast and crew, formatted so that the questions are printed on title cards and briefly displayed on the screen; the interviewer is neither heard nor seen. From the locales and context, it is evident that some of the interviews were done during shooting and others after shooting was completed.

    The interviews are uniformly interesting and frequently informative. It’s worth noting that several participants are asked what the film is about, and each gives a different answer.

    Interviewees are listed below.

    Writer: Anna-Maria Monticelli (6:42)
    Producer: Emile Sherman (3:39)
    Director: Steve Jacobs (8:11)
    Actor: John Malkovich - David Lurie (2:53)
    Actress: Jessica Haines - Lucy Lurie (3:40)
    Actress: Antoinette Engl - Melanie Isaacs (3:35)
    Actor: Eriq Ebouaney - Petrus (3:33)
    DOP: Steve Arnold (2:55)

    Disgrace: Behind the Scenes (9:48). This featurette consists of footage recorded throughout the making of the film, edited together without voiceover or explanation. It covers pre-production, casting, costume selection, shooting, editing, soundtrack recording and sound mixing – all of which is a lot of ground for under ten minutes. One suspects that material exists for a more detailed documentary, and I wouldn’t mind seeing it.

    Trailer. You can see the marketing people struggling to find a way to encapsulate the film. They’ve done their best.

    In Conclusion:

    It’s always a good idea to let Stephen King have the last word: “The scenery is gorgeous, and the story – sorrowful but never sentimental – is hypnotic.” What he said.

    Equipment used for this review:

    Panasonic BDP-BD50 Blu-ray player (DTS-HD MA decoded internally and output as analog)
    Samsung HL-T7288W DLP display (connected via HDMI)
    Lexicon MC-8 connected via 5.1 passthrough
    Sunfire Cinema Grand amplifier
    Monitor Audio floor-standing fronts and MA FX-2 rears
    Boston Accoustics VR-MC center
    SVS SB12-Plus sub
  2. David Wilkins

    David Wilkins Supporting Actor

    Jul 5, 2001
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    Another excellent review, Michael. I heard about this one via Ebert's review at the time it was released. It's at the top of my list.

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