Quebecois filmmaker and Cannes film festival darling Xavier Dolan lost his wunderkind status when his long-gestating English language debut The Death and Life of John F. Donovan proved a dud at last fall’s Toronto International Film Festival. The first of the prolific 30-year-old auteur’s films to skip Cannes since Tom at the Farm, Dolan’s newest was met with outright critical scorn.
Seen a year out from its debut, as it is finally making its way into a quiet release in Canada, the film is more a sampler platter of goods than a complete disaster — the logical extension of its maker’s stylistic quirks and bad habits as well as his penchant for coaxing big brassy performances out of his generally strong casts.
Game of Thrones’ Kit Harrington plays the aloof titular character, a handsome and closeted TV actor with a rabid teen fanbase. The film opens with Donovan’s death in 2006 under mysterious circumstances and retraces his last days through a pair of structural conceits. The first is his epistolary friendship with a precocious child actor named Rupert Turner (Jacob Tremblay), who’s living in England with his single mother and showbiz hopeful Sam (Natalie Portman). The second and more obnoxious is a contemporary magazine interview between a now adult Rupert (Ben Schnetzer) and a hostile journalist named Audrey Newhouse (Thandie Newton). They talk about Rupert’s new book, a heretofore unpublished collection of Donovan’s green-inked handwritten letters that’s sure to cast new light on the young actor, who is now regarded as a gone-before-his-time Heath Ledger sort.
Dolan roots around a little too freely in his aesthetic sandbox with multiple timelines, slow-motion and pop music-scored montages to underline his characters’ emotional states. Though his films have always walked the line of poor taste — Mommy featured Celine Dion’s “On Ne Change Pas” in one critical scene, snobs be damned — here he indulges it to new extremes, both for better and for worse.
There is something particularly galling about the way he has his authorial stand-in, the adult Rupert, lecture Audrey about her preference of world affairs to the comparably minor story he’s telling about a relationships between a gay actor unable to live frankly in public and an awkward queer preteen in search of a friend. Few films could survive a clunky moment where a bratty stand-in for the filmmaker comes out from behind the camera to scold a hypothetical middle-aged woman of colour in the audience about how privilege is a myth. Yet this one is particularly ill-equipped given Schnetzer’s utter vacuousness and disconnect from the more charming version of the character played by Tremblay, who sensitively captures Rupert’s emotional instability and burgeoning camp sensibility.
Dolan is at his worst when he allows his baffling choice of music to substitute for a deeper effort to sustain characterization or mood. Setting the opening credits to Adele’s “Rolling in the Deep” is a blatant and ill-conceived flex from go, suggesting Dolan is calling in a favour from a friend and colleague — having directed her video for “Hello” — regardless of whether the song fits into either timeline.
Eager to outdo himself, he closes with The Verve’s “Bittersweet Symphony,” lifted directly from the final moments of Cruel Intentions. It’s not clear whether Dolan is referencing a favourite from his own preteen days or whether he just likes the effect. Whatever the reason, it doesn’t land except as another clumsy gesture to cosmic importance in a film that already parachutes in Michael Gambon for a pep talk with Donovan about the complexity of life.
Still, there’s a nagging uniqueness to the film, and to its nervous, sentimental energy, that makes it hard to resist at times. That’s especially true when it’s mining thematic ground Dolan knows intimately from his own history as a child actor. As much as Harrington is a blank, save for his idiosyncratic love of top 40, it works for his status as a tragic cipher in Rupert’s mind: an untouchable, lost gay role model who might guide him through his adolescence.
The Death and Life of John F. Donovan opens in select cities Aug. 23.