The novels of Philip Roth have proven resistant to adaptation in the past. Those attempts that were made to bring them to the big screen have met with mixed results, arguably reaching a low point in 2003 with a poorly received version of The Human Stain starring Anthony Hopkins and Nicole Kidman.
Elegy, thankfully, bucks the trend. Based on the author's gloomy novella The Dying Animal, the drama follows the preening and egotistical cultural critic and professor David Kepesh (Ben Kingsley), whose bubble of "emancipated manhood" is burst when the beautiful Cuban graduate Consuela Castillo (Penélope Cruz) enters his life. The protagonist, who has committed his entire life to not committing, finds himself falling in love with the woman who is 30 years his junior. But along with that love comes heartache, jealousy and even a bit of stalking as Kepesh becomes convinced that the age difference between him and Consuela will sooner or later become a problem.
Kepesh's relationship with Carolyn (Patricia Clarkson), another former student but closer to his own age, begins to be affected by the romance. His friendship with his fellow intellectual George (Dennis Hopper) is also explored, along with his doctor son (Peter Sarsgaard) from a miserable former marriage, whom he seldom sees. This minimal, low-budget drama by the Spanish filmmaker Isabel Coixet (My Life Without Me) is a faithful and brave adaptation of Roth's story of love, desire and mortality. The film is successful - where the adaptation of The Human Stain was not - thanks to the director's willingness to honestly present the story's less appealing characters: in this case, the shamelessly sexist protagonist.
Each of the cast members give fine performances, but it is Cruz who radiates endless charm and beauty throughout the film. Judging by recent performances in 2008's Vicky Christina Barcelona and Broken Embraces, the actress appears to be on unstoppable form. She even manages to upstage Kingsley, whose performance as the emancipated male, disarmed by the warmth and beauty of a woman half his age, is at times a little mannered. The film's main fault however, is that it can be quite difficult to understand what Consuela sees in Kepesh. Their relationship has the unconvincing air of something that could exist only in the world of fiction. The fact that the same criticism was levelled at the book suggests that the performances of Kingsley and Cruz are not necessarily to blame for this.
Clarkson is also compelling in every scene as a successful businesswoman who has been loosely involved with Kingsley's character for 20 years. One of the film's most poignant moments sees her and David comfort each other about their relationship and discuss growing older. The film is, altogether, exceptionally well cast and even features a rather good, although easily missable, cameo from Blondie's Deborah Harry. Elegy has captivating performances and will be loved by romance fans, but there are still times when it all feels awfully familiar and predictably melodramatic. The story about a man's tug-of-war with himself, only resolved by the hand of fate, is unashamedly grown-up, but can leave the viewer feeling somewhat unrewarded.
However, Coixet brings an intimacy and lightness of touch to the film that a male director might have failed to reach. Her style is pared down enough to let this exceedingly strong cast shine, but powerful enough to bring an added punch to its more emotionally charged moments.