While it’s generally a given that summertime is for spectacle and mass appeal and amusement-park metaphors, a handful of films will usually sneak into theaters under the radar, giving lovers of grown-up movies a chance to watch great performances and powerful stories while the bass line of aliens and explosions bleeds in from the cineplex next door.
One such rare treat is “Elegy” which, for me, feels like the first English-language narrative film candidate for my year-end best list. Sensitively directed by the talented Isabel Coixet — a Spanish director who’s a master at somber, rainy-day-at-the-rocky-beach movies — the film spins its tale of love and loss in a way that feels simultaneously shattering and hopeful.
Ben Kingsley stars as David Kepesh, the sort of literary light who talks about books on NPR and “The Charlie Rose Show.” He also teaches, which is how he meets Consuela (Penélope Cruz), a Cuban-American student who entrances him. David has had many past flings with former students — Carolyn (Patricia Clarkson), his steady lover of the last 20 years, once had him as a professor — but Consuela has a hold on him that’s like nothing he’s experienced. Suddenly, David finds himself being jealous, clingy, obsessive. His best friend, a legendary poet (played by Dennis Hopper), tries to get David to end the relationship, but he’s besotted.
When Consuela finally insists that David meet her family and friends, however, he feels stymied, worried that he will look like an old lech taking advantage of her youth and beauty. She finally walks away, devastating him, and he has to figure out how to put his life back together.
But “Elegy,” adapted by Nicholas Meyer from Philip Roth’s “The Dying Animal,” has a few more surprises up its sleeve which won’t be revealed here. What can be said is that the film takes us unflinchingly into David’s soul, from his detachment from romantic attachments to his strained relationship with his adult son (Peter Sarsgaard) who’s still bitter about David’s abandonment of the family decades earlier.
With “The Wackness” and now “Elegy,” Ben Kingsley is very much on a roll, which comes as a surprise after his recent, seemingly mercenary, appearances in movies like “Bloodrayne” and “The Love Guru.” In lesser hands, David could be glib or facile, but Kingsley peels back the layers on this commitment-phobic academic and finds his humanity.
Equally revelatory is Cruz, who’s never been this good in English before. (If you’ve never seen her Spanish-language work, in “Volver” or elsewhere, you’ve missed her best films.) Whether Cruz has become more comfortable in her second language, or whether she’s just operating at her best being directed by another Spanish woman, her performance is volatile, erotic and ultimately heartbreaking. Clarkson, Hopper, Sarsgaard and even Deborah Harry, turning up briefly as Hopper’s oft-cuckolded wife, make the most of their brief turns as well.
Coixet’s understated films usually fly under the radar in this country — her “Things I Never Told You” is particularly worth seeking out — but with “Elegy” she makes a robust claim as one of today’s most powerful filmmakers. It’s an often-wrenching film, but it’s one that thoughtful filmgoers can’t afford to miss.