Wednesday, Sept. 3, 2008

Ben Kingsley's Elegy

By David Luhrssen
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It isn’t true that David Kepesh cares for nothing but himself. As a literature professor at a prestigious New York university and a respected public intellectual, Kepesh cares about books, music and art, probably for the pleasure he derives from them rather than any value they may have of themselves. He cares for women, has cared for many of them, and for the same reason he loves the arts. They make him feel more alive, more astute. As for the objects of his interest, well, they are just objects, after all.

Kepesh is the protagonist of Elegy, Spanish director Isabel Coixet’s adaptation of the Philip Roth novel. It stars Ben Kingsley as Kepesh, his gleaming baldhead and pointy Van Dyke beard suggesting the satyr that he is. Old age has snuck up on the professor, leaving a gap between the way he still perceives himself and the way the woman he desires might look at him. He understands that he risks his self-image by pursuing a student in his graduate seminar, an exotic beauty called Consuela played with enigmatic reserve by Penelope Cruz.

n the interview with Charlie Rose that opens Elegy, Kepesh elucidates his philosophy, which comes down to pushing back the heavy hand of America’s Puritanical past in favor of sexual freedom. It all amounts to fulfilling desire. With that in mind, his pursuit of the lovely Consuela begins in part as a field expedition in search of a woman of Old World temperament. She is the daughter of wealthy Cuban refugees, smartly dressed, sophisticated and holding herself aloof. Flirting with her is challenging and rewarding. Consuela is impressed by his show of knowledge, by the attention lavished on her by a man regarded as famous in some circles. Soon enough his yen for her becomes more than an academic exercise—more than a test to see if he’s still got that old charm—as jealous delusions and obsessive fantasies overtake his usual hawk-eyed judgment. Meticulous and mendacious, he calls her every night they are apart, less from concern than for control.

Elegy is a man’s story despite its female director. Kepesh’s voiceover provides the narration that illuminates the gradual shift in his thinking and it’s his concerns that are always at center stage. But although we understand less about Consuela, the mysterious source of her love for Kepesh isn’t necessarily a crippling omission. She is never entirely the passive object of the professor’s interest. Consuela demands to hear his plans for their future, suspecting the dark truth: for Kepesh, women are a short-term investment. For his part, as something like love begins to stir, Kepesh has good reason for concern over their age difference. Thirty years is a span as wide as the Grand Canyon.

An able supporting cast assists Kingsley and Cruz. Chief among them is Dennis Hopper as Kepesh’s colleague and best friend, a Pulitzer-winning poet whose commonsensical advice is largely ignored. The poet sagely observes that men never really know beautiful women. Dazzled by the surface, they never penetrate to the essence. He also counsels Kepesh to grow up.

Coixet filmed Elegy with skillful elision, passing through two years without bogging down in tangents or losing sight of the story’s melancholy aura. With elegant austerity, Kingsley and Cruz enact their beautifully filmed erotic shadow play in the deepening twilight of emotions. For Kepesh, the link between commitment and what’s carelessly called love is the greatest revelation.

Elegy has been rescheduled to open in Milwaukee on Sept. 19.

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