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The Life & Death Of John Donovan: Xavier Dolon’s Latest Film Knocks The Socks Off

Starring: Kit Harington,  Natalie Portman, Ben Schnetzer, Jacob Trembley, Susan Sarandon, Kathy Bates, Thandie Newton

Directed by  Xavier Dolan

Rating: ****(4 stars)

For  the gay Canadian director  Xavier Dolan,filmmaking is  a means of exorcizing his own  demons, a coming-out-of-the-closet ritual whereby the characters lay bare their souls that are whittled  down to  sheer basics,   naked and shivering in front of  the  camera.

Xavier’s  films make you  uncomfortable, as  all cinema  should.

 I’ve watched  all of Dolan’s works from the time he made his debut ten years ago with I Killed My Mother. His own troubled relations with his  mother is  a recurring monster-motif in his cinema. In his latest most ambitious and easily the most critically panned  film , there are two sets  of troubled  relationships with troubled mothers both brilliantly  played by Natalie Portman and  Susan Sarandon.

Why two? You may well ask. One of the  most evocatively  scripted  film in  recent times  The Life & Death  Of  John Donovan is Dolan’s most challenging work fusing two lives  of a rapidly  burning-out superstar John Donovan(played with  spiraling  sensitivity  by  Game  Of Thrones star Kit Harington) in the US  and his  11-year old  boy fan Rupert(played by wonder-child  Jacob Tremblay who is to  impressionable roles what De Niro is to  characters  of experience) in England.

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What binds  them together is their epistolary connection. Little  Rupert  writes John a  fan letter.Hence begins a  friendship between  the two likeminded souls, both lonely actors, both gay, though the  homosexuality of  one comes  to a far  more satisfying culmination  than the  other.

John for all his stardom, or maybe   because  of  it, remains  closeted till the  end .

In an astonishing  balancing act  Xavier  Dolan  weighs the two parallel  lives of  the  protagonists  against one another bringing into play conflicts  and  optional dilemmas that resonate far beyond their immediate  lives. The  storytelling device  of bringing in an arrogant selfimportant journalist(Thandie Newton) to interview the now-grownup  Rupert(played  with charismatic  conviction by  Ben Schentzner)  is  a masterstroke.Her attitude  is  professional . His tone is  confessional.It is the  classic  relationship between the audience and  the filmmaker.

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We see  the fan-star relationship in an a sweeping yet  reined-in  arc that subsumes  emotions which  are buried too deep for expression.  Dolan excavates  the dark unexplored  innerworld  of  fame  and  anonymity , telling us that at the  end they are  the one and  the same. In telling  this  arching  emotionally  brimming story  he  has used some of  the  greatest acting talent from American cinema . Watch  out for the veteran  Michael Gambon in a  closing debate  with  John Donovan on why  fame can never be  fake, and that  if you are chosen to be someone special it can’t for no reason at all.

I came  away from The  Life & Death  Of John Donovan with many unforgettable  episodes:  when little Rupert confronts his mother  on her reluctance to let him fly freely, when Rupert’s manager(Kathy Bates,  excellent as  ever) tells John Donovan  she won’t work with the monster that he  threatens to become, when John  shies away from his  burgeoning  love for  a  gay one-night stand, and a family dinner reunion sequence at Rupert’s home where all the exterior gleam is  washed away in alcohol and  tears.

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 This  a  rough-edged  ,sometimes  selfindulgent  but  always a great film . The original version was  four hours long. It has been  cut done  to just over two hours. I’d love to see what  the  remaining two hours have to say about lives led in the shadows  fearing sunlight  when they should fear only the darkness that they embrace as their  destiny.

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