With a name like Elegy, it’s unfair to expect anything but sadness. For a lot of people, sadness equates to gravitas, or grandeur. This is true to an extent. Films like Atonement, Million Dollar Baby, Gladiator, they manage to express feelings of sadness in a beautiful way. Other films want to beat you to death with the idea, but never can, it comes across as faux-self pity. Elegy falls somewhere in the middle. There are brilliant shining moments, and there are times where it’s not sure what the point of the story is.
The problem isn’t in the performances which are remarkable. Penelope Cruz plays Consuela, a remarkably beautiful (does she ever play anyone that isn’t remarkably beautiful?), disarming MFA student at an unnamed, but prestigious university. After taking a class from the extremely intelligent David (Ben Kingsley), the two enter in to a relationship that can’t be called sordid, but defies definition. Both have their concerns. David is thirty something years her elder. He fears she’ll leave him for someone better, someone younger. Dennis Hopper plays George, David’s Pultizer prize-winning friend and confidant. He hardly has the credentials to give advice on relationships, spending most of his adult life cheating on his wife. David has chosen the single life to keep his independence, to keep things simple. But everything becomes complicated when he realizes Consuela means more to him than he’d like to admit.
David narrates much of the film, frankly discussing his sexual desires, his fear of commitment, not once trying to hide his sexism, or his brutal honesty. The sadness is found in much of the story, but mostly in David’s character. He’s in his sixties, accomplished academically, but unable to really bond with anyone (an unfortunately overstated side plot with David’s son, played by Peter Sarsgaard, shoves this notion in the viewers face). Nicholas Meyer did a tremendous job adapting the novel by Philip Roth (called The Dying Animal), but at times, it seems like Roth (already in his seventies) was writing about wish fulfillment, romanticizing things a tad too much–the beautiful, almost perfect, young woman finding love in a much, much older man. Despite these slight flaws, director Isabel Coixet (The Secret Life of Words) deserves the highest praise for taking this story and matching it to the perfect tone. It’s not melodramatic, it just is, and that’s hard to find now days when most ‘art films’ are taking themselves too seriously. No, it’s not a perfect film, but Elegy is accomplished and mature, and will move you more than you expect.