Subhash K Jha reviews the recent Xavier Dolon film The Death & Life of John F. Donovan. Read it here.

Review of The Death & Life of John F. Donovan: Xavier Dolon’s latest film knocks the socks off

Starring Kit Harington, Natalie Portman, Ben Schnetzer, Jacob Trembley, Susan Sarandon, Kathy Bates, Thandie Newton

Directed by Xavier Dolan

Rating: **** (4 stars)

For the gay Canadian director Xavier Dolan, filmmaking is  a means of exorcizing his own  demons, a coming-out-of-the-closet ritual whereby the characters lay bare their souls that are whittled down to sheer basics, naked and shivering in front of the camera.

Xavier’s films make you uncomfortable, as all cinema should.

I’ve watched all of Dolan’s works from the time he made his debut ten years ago with I Killed My Mother. His own troubled relations with his mother are a recurring monster-motif in his cinema. In his latest most ambitious and easily the most critically panned film , there are two sets of troubled  relationships with troubled mothers both brilliantly played by Natalie Portman and Susan Sarandon.

Why two? You may well ask. One of the most evocatively scripted film in recent times The Death & Life of John F. Donovan is Dolan’s most challenging work fusing two lives of a rapidly burning-out superstar John Donovan (played with spiraling sensitivity by Game Of Thrones star Kit Harington) in the US and his  11-year old boy fan Rupert (played by wonder-child Jacob Tremblay who is to  impressionable roles what De Niro is to characters  of experience) in England.

What binds them together is their epistolary connection. Little Rupert writes John a fan letter. Hence begins a friendship between the two likeminded souls, both lonely actors, both gay, though the homosexuality of one comes to a far  more satisfying culmination than the  other.

John for all his stardom, or maybe because of it, remains closeted till the end.

In an astonishing balancing act Xavier Dolan weighs the two parallel lives of the protagonists against one another bringing into play conflicts and optional dilemmas that resonate far beyond their immediate lives. The storytelling device of bringing in an arrogant selfimportant journalist (Thandie Newton) to interview the now-grownup Rupert (played with charismatic conviction by Ben Schentzner) is a masterstroke. Her attitude is professional. His tone is confessional. It is the classic relationship between the audience and the filmmaker.

We see the fan-star relationship in a sweeping yet reined-in arc that sublimes emotions which are buried too deep for expression.  Dolan excavates the dark unexplored innerworld of fame and anonymity, telling us that at the end they are the one and the same. In telling this arching emotionally brimming story he has used some of the greatest acting talent from American cinema. Watch out for the veteran Michael Gambon in a closing debate with John Donovan on why fame can never be fake, and that if you are chosen to be someone special it can’t for no reason at all.

I came  away from The Life & Death of John Donovan with many unforgettable  episodes: when little Rupert confronts his mother on her reluctance to let him fly freely, when Rupert’s manager(Kathy Bates,  excellent as  ever) tells John Donovan she won’t work with the monster that he threatens to become, when John  shies away from his burgeoning love for a gay one-night stand, and a family dinner reunion sequence at Rupert’s home where all the exterior gleam is washed away in alcohol and  tears.

This is rough-edged, sometimes selfindulgent but always a great film. The original version was four hours long. It has been cut down to just over two hours. I’d love to see what the remaining two hours have to say about lives led in the shadows fearing sunlight when they should fear only the darkness that they embrace as their destiny.

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