Commentary: Words of praise for 'Elegy'

Ben Kingsley, Penelope Cruz bring Philip Roth novel to life

"Elegy" expands: As the summer popcorn movies are winding down we're starting to see the arrival of awards worthy independent films that used to remain in the deep freeze until fall.

A case in point is Lakeshore Entertainment and IDP/Samuel Goldwyn Films' drama "Elegy," directed by Spanish director Isabel Coixet ("My Life With Me," "The Secret Life of Words") and starring Penelope Cruz, Ben Kingsley, Peter Sarsgaard, Patricia Clarkson and Dennis Hopper. Produced by Tom Rosenberg, Gary Lucchesi and Andre Lamal, its screenplay by Nicholas Meyer, an Oscar nominee for "The Seven-Per-Cent Solution," is based on Philip Roth's short novel "The Dying Animal."

After opening Aug. 8 to $104,168 at six theaters in New York, Los Angeles, Chicago, San Francisco, Seattle and Washington, D.C. and averaging a very encouraging $17,361 per theater, "Elegy" is expanding Friday (22) in those cities as well as 13 other major markets across the country such as Boston, Dallas, Cleveland and Philadelphia. Additional expansions are planned for Sept. 5 and 12 in other key cities.

Hopefully, favorable reviews and word of mouth will continue to help "Elegy" find its audience. With performances by Kingsley and Cruz that are arguably deeper than their recent excellent work in, respectively, the thriller "Transsiberian" and the comedy "Vicky Cristina Barcelona," "Elegy" is a film whose stars deserve Academy consideration. For a small film without a lot of awards marketing money behind it, that's never easy to achieve.

Last year, for example, Academy members missed the boat by not nominating Frank Langella for his memorable performance in Andrew Wagner indie drama "Starting Out in the Evening." Here's hoping they don't make the same mistake this time around with Kingsley and Cruz for "Elegy." Langella, by the way, has never been Oscar nominated. Happily, he's got another chance this year for his work in Ron Howard's "Frost/Nixon," which is already generating an Oscar buzz for best picture and director.

"Elegy" revolves around the passionate relationship between David Kepesh, a celebrated author and college professor (Kingsley), and Consuela Castillo (Cruz), his beautiful and much younger student. David, who's spent many years pursuing the sexiest coeds in his classes, has also had a 20 year long affair with Carolyn (Clarkson), a high-powered businesswoman successful in everything but love. For Carolyn, discovering David's involvement with Consuela snaps their long commitment free recreational sex arrangement. It's a story with twists and turns that are just the sort of thing you don't want to read about here before seeing the movie.

After enjoying an early look at "Elegy," I looked forward to discussing the making of the movie with Isabel Coixet, who called recently from the Pyrenees in Spain with a cell phone connection sounding every bit as good as it would be from the Hollywood Hills.

"I read the book 'The Dying Animal' when it came out (about) six years ago and I thought 'I know some filmmaker some day will do a movie with this book,' but I never thought at that time it was going to be me," she said, explaining that Lakeshore, which bought the rights to the book, had sent her the screenplay to consider. "And then I met Penelope and she was really, really passionate about the book, saying, 'You know, you have to do this' and I was like, 'I don't know if this is a good idea.' But I thought it was a very, very smart adaptation. It was a challenge.

"I was really scared to do it (but) I said yes and everything fell into place. I knew Penelope was born to play Consuela. At that time, Ben was reading the script. I had a conversation with him. We talked about everything except the script. We talked about love, life, relationships (between older men and younger women). And he said yes. Every single actor I (wanted for the film) said yes. When I read about Carolyn I knew it was (a role for) Patricia. I'm a huge fan of hers and she said yes."

So casting was basically quick and easy. "And (Lakeshore founder and chairman) Tom Rosenberg and (Lakeshore president) Gary Lucchesi agreed with all my choices and we started working," she told me. "They were involved from the beginning. They bought the rights to three Philip Roth novels. I think Penelope was attached to this project for five years."

Asked about the challenges of adapting the book to the screen, Coixet replied, "I think for me the biggest problem was I'm a big fan of Philip Roth's writing, but there is a moment when you have to say, 'Okay, now we are doing a movie.' In a film there is an immediacy when a character is saying one thing and acting like he's thinking something else. That's always very clear on the screen and that's not so clear in (a) book. For me the biggest problem was to say, 'I think we understand the novel, but now I'm going to make a movie.'"

"Elegy" grabs viewers' attention immediately with an opening scene in which David Kepesh, Kingley's character, is guesting on Charlie Rose's television show to promote a book he's written about the little known roots of hedonism in America. David's book is about the colonial settlement Merrymount, a refuge for freethinkers of the time that, he writes, was quickly shut down by the sexually repressed Puritan majority.

"For me it was an obsession (to use the Charlie Rose show)," she told me, "because in those five minutes (of) prologue to the story it gives you a golden opportunity to know David Kepesh (when) you see his (public) persona and then you see how lonely and how fucked up this guy is in real life. I was very, very happy we convinced Charlie Rose to be in the film."

Was that easy to do? "It was not easy because some other people have tried to have him in a film and (he always resisted doing it)," she explained. "Finally, when he got the script he was very happy to do it and he was lovely." The scene actually was shot in Rose's New York studio with the black background that instantly identifies his shows.

Although Rose is an accomplished unscripted interviewer, his exchanges with Kingsley were all carefully scripted. "And he followed the script word by word," she added. "He was always asking for another take because he didn't feel that he was himself. I think it's a very good way to open the movie. It gives you the tone. It gives you a glimpse of who this guy is and, at the same time, once you have seen David Kepesh and Charlie Rose you know (Rose) picked him (to interview because he's a prominent author)."

When it comes to working with actors, she noted, "I think every single actor is a different planet. I love actors. I can't work with an actor I don't want. When you have the people I have in the cast of this movie (it's wonderful). You cannot pretend to direct a conversation between Ben Kingsley and Dennis Hopper (playing a poet and longtime friend of Kepesh). They met on set and it's like they were involved (in each other's lives) forever. I was really convinced Ben Kingsley was David Kepesh and I knew Penelope Cruz was Consuela. I didn't know what would happen when they were together. All the physicality (in the movie) comes from life and from observation (of) these couples where the guy is 30 years older than the girl. It's the way they walk, the way they move, the way they hold hands. All that physicality was there from the beginning."

Focusing on her stars, she pointed out, "With Ben we'd talk about everything -- philosophy, books, love, life, past relationships, how you never learn, how a 64 year old man can act like a 14 year old and sometimes like a seven year old. He was there for me. He was there for the story. He was the most dedicated actor I've ever worked with. Penelope was absolutely passionate about Consuela and I think there are some (aspects) of Consuela in Penelope. There is this honesty and she's never afraid to ask (for) what she wants. There is also admiration because I think Consuela really admires Kepesh."

As for shooting the sex scenes between Kepesh and Consuela, she said, "I was the camera operator, too, because I always (shoot) my films. They were very simple (scenes to film). The three of us were alone in a little room in a studio and we knew how important those scenes were and how they were the key to understanding what kind of passion these two people shared. It was the first time Ben chose to do a love scene and I think he was really much more nervous than Penelope and me.

"At the same time, I found them very easy and pleasant to shoot. The first five minutes (felt) like a year, but I had the film in my mind and I knew exactly what kind of things I wanted them to do. I was very clear with them. You know, I would have problems shooting a massacre or people bombing and bodies exploding all over the place. I would have a problem with that because I've never seen that. But sex? I know sex. I can film sex pretty well."

Looking back at production, Coixet observed, "I have to say I have pretty good memories of (making) the film. There was one moment (I recall particularly). You know, Ben is a machine. He's an actor you can ask everything (of) and I know he'll do it. So there was this day we were shooting in a restaurant. It's a scene when Consuela is saying, 'So who am I for you? Have you ever imagined a future with me?' I was operating the camera and I was panning from Penelope to Ben and I saw Ben was really touched and he was almost crying. And that was not him.

"I mean, if you want him to cry he'll do it, but that scene is the moment when she is much wiser and older than him and he's dropped (from) 64 to 14 and he's becoming really a child. I went to Ben and I said, 'What's happening? This scene is emotional but not that emotional.' And he said, 'Yes, I know, but I was remembering all those women in my life who in several restaurants of the world have asked me, 'Who am I for you? Have you ever imagined a future with me?' And I know they're here with us and they are judging me.'"

Martin Grove hosts movie coverage on the broadband television channel