Elegy (15)

Beauty and the beast
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The Independent Culture

This had all the warning signs of a disaster.

An adaptation of a lesser Philip Roth novel, The Dying Animal, it was written and produced by the team that made such a mess of a great Roth novel, The Human Stain. It is about a priapic literature professor who beds a beautiful woman 30 years his junior and then bellyaches over it. Its tagline runs "Love Has No Boundaries". Ugh.

So allow me to be amazed, not only because Elegy succeeds on its own terms, but because it's actually a more rounded, humane and involving experience than its source material. Better than Roth?! I would scarcely have believed it myself if I hadn't seen it.

Watch the Elegy trailer

The reason why can be located in its choice of director, the Spaniard Isabel Coixet, who specialises in rare cinematic birds: her 2003 film My Life Without Me is one of very few terminal-illness dramas I wouldn't mind watching again, and its preoccupations with mortality make it very much of a piece with this latest.

Coixet seems instinctively to understand that, where matters of life and death are concerned, the tone will always sit better when it is understated. What's more, the casting of Kingsley is inspired. His character, David Kepesh, a sixtysomething professor, is different from the novel in being neither American nor, apparently, Jewish; he's a Brit who escaped to New York in the 1960s, lured by the promise of sexual freedom. But in other respects Kingsley has him to the life – distant, calculating, self-satisfied, a man who gets laid a lot ("unimpeded in the world of eros", in Roth's grandiose phrase) but avoids any commitment. The perfectly bald head and neat beard only enhance his bearing as a satyr. When we first see him on a late-night culture show, Kepesh, a confessed hedonist, berates the American puritans for their attempts to outlaw "sexual happiness". But what then happens to him argues that such happiness is a chimera.

He begins dating one of his former students, Consuela, a Cuban-born beauty who reminds him of Goya's portrait of The Clothed Maja (this is a high-toned comparison, and hugely unfair to Penelope Cruz who, even with her girlish fringe, is about a hundred times more alluring than Goya's lady).

At first Kepesh rhapsodises about her breasts and calls her body "a work of art"; then he falls helplessly in love with her. And, to his embarrassment, he finds himself a nervous wreck, as prey to jealousy and insecurity as any lovelorn swain. (In one excruciating scene, he goes to spy on her at a nightclub, convinced that she's gone there to meet another lover, and his cover is blown. The look she gives him – more in sorrow than in anger – would make a less self-regarding man leave not just the club, but the country.) Worse, his 30-year seniority is now a source of oppression: she's young and lovely, he's old and on the way out. But this, too, is revealed to be another aspect of the man's towering selfishness, since Consuela sees a future for them and wants Kepesh to meet her family.

What comes across in Roth's novel as crybaby indulgence – a young woman's love and he still can't be happy – is rendered in Coixet's movie as a tragicomic getting of wisdom. Self-pity is softened until it looks like pity for the human condition. Some of the liveliest moments happen on the margins, where Kepesh dodges around the people who have known him best.

Patricia Clarkson is terrific, again, as a no-strings lover who has kept him company for the last 20 years and now suspects she's being run in for a younger model.

Even better are the scenes with Peter Sarsgaard as his 42-year-old son, Kenny, still tight-jawed with rage at Kepesh's desertion of his family all those years ago and the "serial tomcatting" that followed it. Now Kenny's own marriage is in trouble – he has met another woman – but his father, who ought to sympathise, can think of nothing to say that might help (though he does get a very good line about an oboe). Dennis Hopper, as the professor's best friend, is the single instance of miscasting, simply because Hopper cannot be anyone's best friend, but he's interesting to watch nonetheless, and his deathbed scene has a curiosity all its own.

Fans of Roth may wonder where the nervy, disputatious energy of the writer has gone; it looks rather too discreet and tasteful for anything associated with his name. What Coixet misses out, however, she makes good in terms of humanity. Like a lawyer with a problem client, Kingsley gives a generous account of a distinctly unamiable protagonist. His ramrod-straight posture and watchful eyes betoken a man on guard against the world, and his one brief burst of laughter makes even Hopper sound vaguely human. Yet this is a portrait of great complexity that passes from pathetic insecurity to shocking regret, and it finds a complement in Cruz's doe-eyed charmer. Beautifully photographed by Jean-Claude Larrieu, Cruz gives the best English-speaking performance of her career. Again, it's the restraint of the playing that touches; there are no operatic displays of anger or self-pity, just a wry philosophical acceptance of the hand that fate has played her.

Elegy ends as quietly as it begins, and its crepuscular mood will not be to everyone's liking. It's a drab title, though in truth The Dying Animal, while more evocative, would probably draw even fewer people to the box office. It's not an obvious choice from the Roth oeuvre to put on screen – I'd love to see what they might do with Sabbath's Theater, or The Plot Against America – yet Coixet has done more than honour it; she has found a tenderness and vulnerability that were so deeply buried as to be almost undetectable.