The journey for acclaimed French-Canadian filmmaker Xavier Dolan's English language debut 'The Death and Life of John F. Donovan' has been a complex one. Long delays in post-production caused many to suspect that the film might be in trouble, and its world premiere at the Toronto Film Festival in 2018 was met with mostly negative reviews. Since then, it's been very hard for audiences to see the film for themselves; in fact, Australian audiences have had more chances to see his most recent film, the gorgeous 'Matthias and Maxime'. It's become a curiosity, a moment of failure for this wunderkind artist, but it is the very fact of Dolan's talent that probably makes this a far more fascinating film than any kind of easily dismissible mess.
Reporter Audrey Newhouse (Thandie Newton, TV's 'Westworld') interviews young actor and writer Rupert Turner (Ben Schnetzer, 'Pride') about a new book he has just published, featuring correspondence he had as a child with actor John Donovan (Kit Harrington, TV's 'Game of Thrones') a decade earlier. The film mostly inhabits this past, balancing the complications of John's career with young Rupert (Jacob Tremblay, 'Room') and his relationship with his mother Sam (Natalie Portman, 'Jackie').
There's no question that 'Death and Life' is flawed, but a flawed film doesn't always make for a bad one. In fact, what Dolan has delivered is an often fascinating, sometimes quite moving portrait of loneliness and the search for one's self. The ingredients are familiar, but the manner in which he combines them is elevated by his particular brand of honest sincerity; a care for the characters that, in turn, invites you to also care for them. John and Rupert are linked, not just by their letters but by their shared need to find where they fit in the world, where they are watched and scrutinised from all corners, and where privacy must be protected at all costs.
Of the two storylines, the one focused on John is the more successful and more meditative, and while we've seen this kind of musings on celebrity and fame before, there's something about Kit Harrington's performance that makes this particular portrait quite haunting. He is the maker of his own misery, the happiness he seeks within arms reach and without anyone in his way but himself. He flirts with a possible relationship with young actor Will (Chris Zylka, TV's 'The Leftovers') but never embraces it, for reasons which neither he nor we understand. John is present but not, somewhere lost and far away, and wherever that is, is a mystery. His life is a confusion, and it's a quietly brilliant move on Dolan's part to have cast Harrington right in the midst of his own very complex relationship with celebrity. This is Harrington's best performance by far, one that shows his quiet intelligence as an actor, but when these sections are at their best is where you can feel the weight of his experience feeding into John. Perhaps this is reading too much into a performance, but it's a striking correlation, and one that Dolan uses to his advantage. Harrington is never left to flail in the film, but rather given the tools and the space to blossom. This section could also be seen as a reflection of Dolan's own experiences of being thrust into the spotlight at a young age, and the complicated relationship this established between himself and the industry he belongs to, having to define yourself not just as an artist but as a person when the very act of definition becomes a public performance. Dolan is aiming for a kind of emotional truth with John's story, and that truth is ultimately its greatest asset.
Young Rupert's storyline begins well enough, taking the existential loneliness of John's existence and reducing it to the experience of being a bullied and misunderstood kid at school, but despite the strength of Tremblay and Portman, it's a storyline that never finds its feet. Narrative and thematic possibilities, such as Rupert's sympathetic teacher Mrs Kureishi (Amara Karan, 2019's 'The Twilight Zone') are not so well explored, and the relationship between Rupert and his mother often descends into melodramatic histrionics. Dolan plays with melodrama at many points through the film to great effect, but it never feels comfortable in the bodies of either actor here. Where Tremblay excels is in his moments of stillness and sadness, where the self-awareness of Dolan and co-writer Jacob Teirney's screenplay fall away and we're left with Rupert's intense loneliness.
The first two acts of the film move with the kind of tonal confidence we have come to expect from Dolan, even while he flirts with the familiar tropes of the sweeping romanticism of prestige Hollywood dramas. There's a pop, a bravado, a willingness to play and to be bold, to use the obvious needle drop, not out of laziness to lack of imagination but because they are obvious and will do exactly what he (and we) want them to do. He doesn't purport this to be reality but myth, the dream of celebrity, the heightened unreal world of money and fame. We're only steps away from 'A Star Is Born' or 'Vox Lux', but through a queer lens that understands these indulgences and airs as a costume with which to protect one's self, and how queer self-discovery risks being highjacked as entertainment for heteronormative spectators. As is so often the case with Dolan's films, the subtext often becomes the text itself - much in the way of opera or melodrama - and where this works, the film sings with a palpable resonance.
Dolan is aiming for a kind of emotional truth with John's story, and that truth is ultimately its greatest asset.
However, its ultimate failings are in its ambition, and while the first two acts move with surety, the third act begins with a series of stumbles, where Dolan tries to bring the many threads of the film together in a satisfying way and for John and Rupert's stories to properly collide, but finds them tangled in the process. You can feel the plot mechanics at work, overwhelming character and theme, and despite the best efforts of everyone involved, none of the moments of revelation work. They seem to belong to another film - and not the kind of film Dolan is comfortable making, an attempt at narrative cleanliness that ruins the beguiling messiness of the film. In that sense, it has similarities with John Crowley's also fascinating, also ambitious and also flawed 'The Goldfinch' (2019), though Dolan has more of an idea of what his film is about that Crowley. Thankfully, 'Death and Life' does find its feet though and returns to its characters - and in particular John - to bring the film to an emotionally satisfying conclusion, but the missteps never put Rupert's storyline back on track. Perhaps the problem is trying to give them a more complex narrative reason to connect, when focusing on the correspondence (which is another thread never taken full advantage of) and allowing the two stories to commune thematically would have been more than enough.
You can see Xavier Dolan reaching for something grand with this film, a bigger story than he has ever attempted before and even more romantic questions of identity and self, but while one of the problems of 'The Death and Life of John F. Donovan' is that there are too many questions being asked, it doesn't mean that any of them aren't worth asking. This is still a Xavier Dolan film, and for all the right reasons, even down to his continuing dissection of the complex relationships between mothers and sons, and when he has sure footing, his flashes of spectacle in this film are really wonderful. He also connects so beautifully with his cast, with almost all of them in perfect step with him. This isn't a hidden masterpiece, but it also is nowhere near a disaster. It's an arresting misstep from a deeply passionate filmmaker who cares about every frame, who is trying for something genuine and honest, and yes, he chooses the framework of the privileged and the white, but these are (for all their problems) our modern mythical figures. To Rupert, John is a god, a superhero, an ideal to reach for, and the ultimate understanding of the film is that it is far more important to be human than iconic. In many ways, through his journey to discover that for himself, this is the gift that John gives Rupert in his letters. 'The Death and Life of John F. Donovan' will be a curiosity in the (hopefully long) career of this gifted filmmaker, and to be honest, a failed curiosity from Xavier Dolan is still a film worth every second.