Monday, May 04, 2020

The Death and Life of John F. Donovan

Xavier Dolan’s name appears a lot in the opening credits of The Death and Life of John F. Donovan. He’s noted as one of the costume designers, a co-editor, co-writer, co-producer and – in case you didn’t get the message – the words “directed by Xavier Dolan” appear twice. I’ve long admired the way Dolan throws so much of himself into his work, but as I watched this film I wondered if he should have delegated more often to focus on the already considerable task of directing this picture, because if The Death and Life of John F. Donavan has one defining trait, it’s a chronic lack of focus.

Before those opening credits have even begun, we’ve been introduced to the three narrative threads that Dolan will spend the next two hours struggling to pull together. In New York in 2006, Donovan (the fatally uncharismatic Kit Harrington) is a young actor on the rise. The star of a hit TV show and on the verge of being cast in Disney’s new superhero movie ("These kinds of movies are popular right now, but it won't last, will it?" someone asks), he’s idolised from afar by 10 year-old Rupert (Jacob Tremblay). Living in Harrow with his mother (Natalie Portman) and the target of school bullies, Rupert takes refuge in his secret epistolary correspondence with Donovan, an unlikely friendship that began when the star unexpectedly replied to one of his fan letters and that has now been ongoing for five years.

We never learn why Donovan felt the urge to respond to this particular child, or why he felt compelled to maintain the correspondence for five years and something in the region of a hundred letters. We understand that he feels trapped and unhappy, a closeted actor forced to live a public lie in a sham heterosexual relationship, but what did he get out of sharing his thoughts and feeling with this young stranger? We don’t know, and while the essential unknowability of the celebrities we revere is partly the film’s point, the fact that we don’t hear anything from these letters or see him even acknowledge their existence in his life until the very end of the film makes it feel like a crucial element of the text – something that could have given us a sense of his perspective and inner life – is absent. Without this tangible connective tissue to link Rupert and Donovan together, Dolan relies heavily on the adult Rupert (Ben Schnetzer) to fill in the gaps. He is promoting a memoir built around their relationship and is sitting down for an interview with a hardnosed reporter (Thandie Newton) who is accustomed to covering stories with more gravity and rolls her eyes at his "mishaps from the first world." She gradually begins to soften and empathise with him over the course of his narration, but as Dolan cuts back-and-forth between this conversation, set in 2017, and the two halves of his 2006 story, he can’t settle on the right rhythm.

Dolan has always been a director who favours direct emotions and blunt melodrama, but the big moments here – like Harington’s embarrassing on-set meltdown – can feel like they’re blowing up in a vacuum rather than emerging organically from the film’s steadily rising emotional temperature. Dolan is on much firmer ground when he focuses on difficult mother-son relationships, the theme that has been the cornerstone of all his work, with Natalie Portman and Susan Sarandon offering committed performances as Rupert and Donovan’s mothers respectively, but even here his usual perception and wit has failed him. Having watched scene after scene of Rupert yelling at his mother, the revelation of his school essay hailing her as his hero – which leads to a tearful slow-motion reunion in the rain – feels mawkish, cheap and entirely false.

The Death and Life of John F. Donovan is the first time Dolan the screenwriter has really failed Dolan the director, but perhaps it’s simply the end result of a filmmaker failing to fully get to grips with his most ambitious project and struggling to make amends in the edit. The film’s choppy editing patterns, truncated arcs and abrupt emotional swings (not to mention Michael Gambon’s bewildering last-minute cameo) all suggest a torturous post-production, as does Gabriel Yared’s score, which is slathered onto the picture like superglue, holding the rickety construction together. The thing is, there are glimmers of the film it could have been; thrilling flashes of Dolan’s directorial brio, aided by André Turpin’s atmospheric 35mm cinematography, and his love of actors, giving them moments to shine that the great ones – like Kathy Bates – relish running with. Ultimately, this feels like a film that he needed to make and get past, and in fact he already has, with his subsequent picture Matthias & Maxime boasting some of his best work on both sides of the camera. Xavier Dolan’s prolific, swing-for-the-fences approach to filmmaking is always liable to produce a mixed bag of triumphs and disasters, but no matter how many times he goes on to falter in his career, The Death and Life of John F. Donovan will likely stand as his most fascinating and perplexing failure.