By Karen Gordon
The Death and Life of John F. Donovan, the English language debut of Quebecois wunderkind Xavier Dolan, lands in theatres on a wave of low expectations. Even before its world premiere at last year’s TIFF the word was the movie was in trouble.
And sure enough, even for someone like me who admires Dolan, the finished film is a bit of a mess. But, I’d argue, it’s kind of a beautiful mess, one that still has the power to be affecting.
The movie has three storylines: It’s anchored by a present day interview between a magazine writer, Audrey Newhouse (Thandie Newton) and a young actor named Rupert (Ben Schnetzer). Rupert has written a book featuring a series of letters he exchanged as a boy with a famous actor John F. Donovan (Game of Thrones’ Kit Harington.
Donovan died at the age of 29, cause unknown, when Rupert was just 11. And now, as an adult, he’s has published the letters, claiming they saved his life.
Audrey is doing the interview under duress. As a writer whose beat is politics and war zones, she sees his story as light and insignificant, maybe even a case of a celebrity indulging himself. But the two sit down anyway.
As he tells his story the movie travels back and forth in time in two different, but connected storylines.
The first is his own story. He describes his life during the time when he was corresponding with Donovan. As a young boy, raised by a single mother (Natalie Portman), he’d traveled from New York to London, to be closer to the father who pretty much abandoned both of them.
In London, the young Rupert (Jacob Tremblay), feels out of place and is constantly bullied, because he’s the newcomer, and because he’s small and is targeted as gay.
The other thread here is the story of the handsome, charismatic Donovan, star of a hit TV show, and beloved by kids including Rupert.
Donovan is on the cusp of mega fame, about to be cast as the lead in a superhero feature. But fame is not sitting comfortably on his shoulders. He’s married to a brittle and bitter home town girl who thought she’d be the famous actor; and he’s suppressing his attraction to men, believing that it will kill his career.
As the story unwinds, we get a bit of each of these stories, enough to understand the personalities and frustrations of each of the characters:
This is movie number seven for Dolan, who has just marked his 30th birthday. He’s a true auteur who has carved a distinct niche for himself. He has made films centered around men, coming out or already out, and their fraught relationships with their often distant-seeming and/or difficult mothers. (In this movie both Rupert and John have mommy issues).
He’s also explored the idea of how one’s fame distorts family relationships. Dolan is exquisitely tuned to family dynamics and the way we are shaped by these relationships. He writes fully formed characters who have rich inner lives and are not caricatures. And that is true here as well.
But as insightful and sensitive as he is, The Death and Life of John F. Donovan has a lot of problems.
It’s not hard to imagine that a first English language project would bring certain pressures. The original cut was four hours and Dolan spent years cutting it down to its current two-hour length.
And perhaps because of that, the movie seems to have trouble focusing on what it wants to be. It feels like Dolan has stuffed every idea he’s been exploring into this one movie. There are too many threads, too many themes, too many ideas for this to work properly.
No one knows what’s on the cutting room floor, but it’s safe to assume some story points went missing. And as the story moves along and characters wear the results of their decisions, things happen too quickly or feel superfluous or outright wrong.
For starters, we’re asked to believe that a fan letter from a little boy would not only make it into the hands of a major star, but that the star would then begin hand-writing letters of some meaning and depth to him over the course of several years.
We know why it would impress Rupert, but we never really understand why this would appeal to John.
And yet, in spite of all of that, something sticks here. Dolan has compassion for his main characters and so, if it catches you as it caught me, the movie has a tone of warmth and intimacy.
That’s enhanced by a skilled cast. Schnetzer as the adult Rupert, and Newton play beautifully together. Their conversation, as they challenge and answer each other frames the film nicely.
But a lot of the credit goes to Harrington, who does beautiful, thoughtful work as the doomed lead character.
The Death and Life of John F. Donovan makes the case that good story editors are worth their weight in gold.
But in spite of my frustrations,the movie stuck with me. There’s a quality of heart and soul, of a kind of tenderness that, for me, made this flawed movie very affecting.
The Death and Life of John F. Donovan. Directed by Xavier Dolan, written by Xavier Dolan and Jacob Tierney. Opens Friday, Aug. 23 in Toronto at the Cineplex Cinemas Varsity.