Given the prodigious nature of Xavier Dolan’s filmmaking career and the frequency at which he churns out productions that he has, at the very least, written, produced and directed, I have made a point of reviewing each of his films here at Hollywood North Magazine. At the tender age of 31, Dolan already has eight films under his belt, two of which were released last year, and I had yet to cover, until now.
Of these films, The Death and Life of John F. Donovan marks a number of firsts for Dolan: it is his first of the two releases in 2019; his first English-language feature; his first film to premiere at the Toronto International Film Festival; and it’s his first film to receive an overwhelmingly negative response from critics. While it is not the total train-wreck some critics have made it out to be, with Dolan showing flashes of what makes him one of the preeminent Canadian filmmakers of his millennial generation, it is inarguably his weakest effort to date.
Despite its title, The Death and Life of John F. Donovan is a tale of two characters. The first is the titular John F. Donovan (Kit Harrington), a popular actor who is on the cusp of superstardom until rumours of his sexuality and correspondence with an 11-year-old boy derail his personal and professional life. The second character is John’s aforementioned pen-pal, Rupert Turner (Jacob Tremblay), an American boy who has recently moved to London with his single mother Sam (Natalie Portman) and idolises John, whose hit TV show acts a form of escape for Rupert’s own personal problems in school and at home.
What surprised me in the film’s first act is just how flat much of its scenes are. While the film is technically sound overall, there is a perceptible disconnect between the narrative and the auteurist nature of Dolan’s cinematography. His style of filmmaking uses frequent close-up shots of his characters, or indeed inanimate objects, which might convey something of a sense of intimacy, but it can also invoke a sense of claustrophobic discomfort, which is at odds with John’s overbearing sense of loneliness. Ultimately, it is like someone staring into your eyes for too long without blinking. Compare this distinguishable style of filmmaking, then, with another auteur like Wes Anderson, who never enslaves himself to style at the expense of his visual themes.
Despite this, The Death and Life of John F. Donovan is nonetheless one of Dolan’s more stylistically conservative films, showing a reflective maturity that largely avoids the encumbering hyper-stylisation of, say, his sophomore effort, Heartbeats. The film also offers more singularly impactful moments, however contrived they might sometimes be, than his previous 2016 feature, It’s Only the End of the World, although where this film was drowned in conflict to the point of exhaustion, The Death and Life of John F. Donovan feels oddly devoid of any discernible dramatic tension until around the 40-minute mark.
Which brings me to the film’s core issue of the actual material and how Dolan and his co-writer Jacob Tierney develop it.
The writers essentially interweave three different plot lines (John, 11-year-old Rupert and 21-year-old Rupert), but there is an unshakeable sense of disconnect between each of them. Even the letters between Rupert and John, which is the one crucial physical connection between the two central characters who never meet, feel incongruously one-sided. While both of Rupert’s plotlines rely heavily upon the letters at the centre of his relationship with John, you would swear the first time John hears about them is when the news story breaks of their correspondence. While I am sure Dolan sought to streamline John’s story as much as he could during the editing process (he even cut Jessica Chastain out of the entire film), this is a baffling omission to say the least.
Even in his pursuit of a lean two-hour picture, many of the scenes play out with a meandering sense of haphazardness, while the dialogue frequently devolves into pseudo-introspective white noise with forgone conclusions. Because Dolan often mistakes pretentiousness for transcendence of the human experience, many of the crucial moments he thinks he’s earned come off as melodramatic.
Yet, that is not to say the film lacks power. On the contrary, Dolan provides fleeting moments of insightful commentary on celebrity, individuality, and the human condition, while the performances from each and every member of the cast deserve recognition, particularly Harrington, Tremblay, Portman and Susan Sarandon, who occasionally manage to bridle the undercooked material.
Scene-to-scene, Xavier Dolan’s The Death and Life of John F. Donovan cannot seem to succeed in one area without failing in another. I hesitate to call this a low point in Dolan’s career because I do not think this film is anywhere as inept as some of the cinematic travesties released in 2019. Additionally, there is still that semblance of artistic merit that implies an attempt at professional advancement gone wrong, because ultimately, beneath all the hollow sentimentality and slapdash storytelling, there is a tangible sense that Dolan is maturing as a filmmaker. I can only hope that this translates into his second film of 2019, Matthias & Maxime, which I will be reviewing next week.