The Death & Life of John F. Donovan

Review by Rich Cline | 4/5

The Death & Life of John F. Donovan
dir Xavier Dolan
scr Xavier Dolan, Jacob Tierney
with Kit Harington, Natalie Portman, Jacob Tremblay, Susan Sarandon, Kathy Bates, Thandie Newton, Ben Schnetzer, Amara Karan, Jared Keeso, Chris Zylka, Sarah Gadon, Emily Hampshire, Michael Gambon
release Can 23.Aug.19,
US 13.Dec.19
19/Canada 2h03

sarandon bates newton

portman and tremblay
Filmmaker Xavier Dolan re-edited this film after its harsh debut on the 2018 festival circuit. Easily his most ambitious work yet, it's a beautifully written, directed and acted exploration of the nature of celebrity. An somewhat oddly fragmented point of view chops between main characters, mixing earthy realism with imagined fantasy, leading to some overwrought moments and inexplicable overreactions. But it's powerfully moving.
In 2006 New York, John Donovan (Harington) is found dead at home, just as Sam (Portman) and her insistent 11-year-old son Rupert (Tremblay) arrive in the city. A decade later, London-based political reporter Audrey (Newton) is interviewing Rupert (now Schnetzer), who found fame when he published the fan letters he exchanged with John as a child. Back when he was a kid, the press discovered those letters, which revealed John's closeted sexuality. And John's subsequent denials created problems for Rupert, who was too young to understand why he identified so closely with John.
Dolan boldly imagines Donovan's glamorous life through the imagination of a lively child who longs to be a famous actor himself. So the flashes of John's world are evocative and suggestive, including how his deeply strained relationship with his childhood sweetheart (Hampshire) is a cover for his homosexuality. In his letters, John refers to rules that would destroy him if they were broken. He also opens up about the guy (Zylka) he wishes he could be with.

Performances are earthy and realistic, sometimes almost uncomfortably easy to identify with. There's a jagged chemistry between Newton and Schnetzer in their sparky interview, and it echoes back into Harington's complex turn as a man who has found fame beyond expectations but lost control of his life in the process. Side roles offer even more texture, including Sarandon as John's tightly wound mother and Bates as his pushy publicist. And Gambon shines in one strong, perhaps too-magical scene.

The film touches on pungent themes like how children can be convinced to give up on their dreams by practical adults. And there are strong explorations of the need to feel like we belong and the collateral effects of our personal decisions. This offers gorgeous shadings in the relationships between Rupert and John and their mothers. Dolan is great at cutting through surfaces with emotion and humour, finding much darker and warmer currents underneath. There may be too many characters here to sustain this approach, but the film is still raw, revelatory and deeply moving.

cert 15 themes, language, violence 14.Jan.20

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© 2020 by Rich Cline, Shadows on the Wall