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New Release Review [VOD] - THE DEATH AND LIFE OF JOHN F. DONOVAN

The Death and Life of John F. Donovan review
A young actor recounts his correspondence as a child with a once popular star.


Review by Eric Hillis

Directed by: Xavier Dolan

Starring: Kit Harington, Jacob Tremblay, Natalie Portman, Susan Sarandon, Kathy Bates, Thandie Newton, Ben Schnetzer, Amara Karan, Jared Keeso, Chris Zylka, Michael Gambon, Sarah Gadon

The Death and Life of John F. Donovan poster


Once considered the enfant terrible of world cinema, Canadian filmmaker Xavier Dolan is increasingly in danger of simply being regarded as terrible. In 2014 he was on top of the cinematic world, winning acclaim for his fifth film, Mommy, while still at the tender age of 25. That movie is my personal favourite of the past decade, and I was eager to see how Dolan would follow it up. His first project to be announced in its wake was his star-studded English language debut, The Death and Life of John F. Donovan, but various complications delayed its release and so instead we received two more French language films from Dolan in the interim, the poorly received It's Only the End of the World in 2016 and last year's melodrama Matthias & Maxime. Both films offered glimpses of Dolan's talent, but both were mired by an over the top tone that was often suffocatingly nauseating. The same can be said for The Death and Life of John F. Donovan, which arrives a full half decade after commencing production, skipping cinemas and quietly popping up on UK VOD platforms.

The John F. Donovan of the title is a rising actor (played by Kit Harington) who we promptly learn was found dead in his New York apartment in 2006. In 2017 Prague a snooty British journalist, Audrey (Thandie Newton), reluctantly agrees to interview a currently rising actor, Rupert Turner (Ben Schnetzer), who has just published a book recounting his childhood correspondence through letters with the late Donovan.

The Death and Life of John F. Donovan review


As Turner tells his story to a disinterested Audrey, we flash back to the mid-noughties, with the young Turner played by Jacob Tremblay, who at time of filming was hot off his acclaimed breakout in Lenny Abrahamson's Room. Turner lives in suburban London with his mother, failed actress Sam (Natalie Portman), and is eking out a career as a child actor while ducking the attentions of the homophobic bullies at his school. He's also sending and receiving letters from Donovan, who is similarly wrestling with anti-gay prejudice, keeping his relationship with a male escort (Chris Zylka) a secret from the prying eyes of the public. When Donovan and Turner's correspondence is made public, the former descends into a spiral of depression, while the latter grows disillusioned when his idol rejects him.

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With a precocious young boy at the centre of its narrative, The Death and Life of John F. Donovan draws unwelcome comparisons with the likes of Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close and the recent disastrous adaptation of Donna Tartt's The Goldfinch. Though an original creation of Dolan's, working in tandem with screenwriter Jacob Tierney, The Death and Life of John F. Donovan feels an awful lot like a doomed screen treatment of some acclaimed yet unfilmable novel. You get the sense that there's some greater thematic truth that the film is trying to get to, but it's all drowned out with the sort of shallow melodrama beloved of '90s teen TV shows like Party of Five and Dawson's Creek.

The Death and Life of John F. Donovan review


What Dolan's film does effectively, albeit by proxy, is make us ashamed of how long it's taken society to begin to accept homosexuality, reminding us that a time as recently as 2006 had progressed no further than 1986 in this regard. Queer cinema was almost non-existent at that time, but we've seen an explosion of LGBTQ narratives in the last few years, and compared to the movies that have emerged in the half decade since Dolan embarked on this project, the exploration of queerness in The Death and Life of John F. Donovan feels dated, the sort of queer movie that might have come out back in 2006. As society becomes more open, queer cinema has moved on from the existential closeted angst mined here.

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It doesn't help that so little of The Death and Life of John F. Donovan is believable. Harington is far too bland for us to accept that he's the hottest young star of the moment. The portrayal of Britain here, all mahogany and stripy scarves, suggests Dolan's only experience of the place comes from watching Harry Potter movies (at one point a woman exclaims "Helena Bonham Carter" in place of swearing). The worldwide reveal of Donovan and Turner's correspondence happens in a manner that simply wouldn't have been feasible in a pre-social media 2006.

The Death and Life of John F. Donovan review


If The Death and Life of John F. Donovan feels like it's missing about a half hour of essential plot development, that's because it likely is. A subplot involving Jessica Chastain as the editor of a gossip mag has been completely excised, leaving a gaping narrative chasm. In 2006, it would have made a lot more sense for such a publication to expose a celebrity revelation rather than the network of cellphone texts that substitutes for twitter here. In the cut released now, it's never suggested that there was anything inappropriate about Donovan's correspondence with Turner, so we're left wondering why everyone is making such a big deal of it. We can only surmise that in the original version, Chastain's character may have falsely turned Donovan and Turner's relationship into something unseemly, which would have tied into the film's critique of homophobia. As it is, we're left to shrug our shoulders.

Dolan has enjoyed a volatile relationship with the press, and Newton's Audrey stands in for his critics here. Halfway through the movie she confesses to Turner that his story is boring the pants off her. Accustomed to reporting from war zones, she dismisses Turner's account as an unimportant first world narrative and professes her eagerness to travel to Nigeria for her next assignment. Turner launches into a rant about how a story's importance shouldn't be judged by either its scale or the level of privilege of its subject. That's a view I personally ascribe to, and I believe that someone's wealth and social status doesn't shield them from such horrors as homophobia and depression, but this story is told in such a rudderless manner that I reluctantly find myself agreeing with Turner's interviewer in this case. Whomever she was set to interview in Nigeria could hardly bore her, and we the audience, as much as Turner.

The Death and Life of John F. Donovan is on UK VOD now.




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