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  • Writer's pictureBen Turner

The Death And Life Of John F. Donovan **

Starring: Kit Harrington, Natalie Portman, Jacob Tremblay, Susan Sarandon, Kathy Bates, Thandie Newton, Ben Schnetzer

Director: Xavier Dolan

Country: Canada

For a while it seemed that Xavier Dolan could do no wrong. Going from strength to strength with each passing film, even earning the Queer Palm at Cannes and Best Director at the Césars, it looked like his upward trajectory was stratospheric. Until this film, that is. His first movie in the English language, The Death And Life Of John F. Donovan had stars aplenty queuing at his door to star in the first Hollywood outing from the Canadian wunderkind, but somehow, something was severely lost in translation.

Rupert (Schnetzer) is a budding actor with a story from his past. As a child (Tremblay) he corresponded with the now-dead icon John F. Donovan (Harrington) and though the journalist interviewing him (Newton) finds celebrity gossip puerile, she can’t help but be intrigued by his story. Having kept his correspondence secret from his mother (Portman) for many years, it becomes public knowledge when the school bully steals his letters from him. But though questions are raised as to the nature of their friendship, even Rupert can’t help protect John from a mental decline as the pressures of fame prove too much for him. On the one hand he hates the phony facades of everyone in the movie industry, but on the other is hiding his sexuality behind a sham girlfriend and a sparkling on-screen persona.

John F. Donovan fails for the precise same reason A Star Is Born succeeded. A film about an artist, regardless of their oeuvre, has to be convincing in exhibiting the work of its subject as having genuine value. And in the case of a fictional performer, you have to buy into the star playing the role. We believed Ally’s hype because we believed Lady Gaga’s hype. The songs she sang were excellent. And then we’re supposed to believe that Kit Harrington is one of the world’s greatest movie stars. And we’re given nothing to support that. The only role we see him play is in an insignificant teen TV Drama, which actually has lower cultural capital that Harrington’s own Game Of Thrones legacy. So why are we expected to buy into Donovan’s status as a Hollywood megastar? Without his artistic gravitas, the film’s fatal flaw is clear from the opening credits.

The story is positioned through the eyes of a child. The film’s standout performance is said child, with Jacob Tremblay better than literally everyone else around him, but the narrative is actually steered by Rupert as an adult and try as he might, Ben Schnetzer simply doesn’t have the charm make us care about what is, essentially, inconsequential. Undercutting this even further is that the reporter is aware that the story is trivial and draws attention to the fact. As Thandie Newton softens, we see very little evidence as to why she would. Nothing that we’re shown has any weight to it and even the scenes of high school bullying fall flat because young Rupert seems far to headstrong for this to be of any real consequence. And even Portman flounders in a role that talks about her flaws but never actually shows them.

Kathy Bates and Susan Sarandon are perfectly adequate in their support, but thoroughly wasted. You would be forgiven for thinking this would be a film like Extremely Loud And Incredibly Close, in which a child finds his own way to make sense of a tragedy, but this is nothing but a prestige piece for a fictional character with inexplicable iconoclasm and half-baked coming-of-age schmaltz that tries really hard – and fails – to pluck at the heart strings.

This is a fairly major misfire for Dolan, whose spectacular back catalogue made the film world sit up and take notice. The fact it has failed to – as yet – find a distributor in the UK two years on is definitely no coincidence. His next film, Matthias & Maxime,is on the festival circuit now and has been received much more positively by critics and it is, surprise surprise, an indie LGBT drama in French. It seems Dolan is very good at what he does best, but should probably stick within his genre. Which is ironic, seeing as he protests at the top of his voice about being pigeon-holed as the director of LGBT films.



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