'The Death and Life of John F. Donovan': Film Review | TIFF 2018

More dead than alive.

Kit Harington, Natalie Portman and Susan Sarandon headline the starry cast in director Xavier Dolan's English-language debut.

The boy wonder of Quebecois cinema, Xavier Dolan has recruited an impressively stellar cast for his debut English-language feature, The Death and Life of John F. Donovan. The eponymous protagonist is played by Game of Thrones hunk Kit Harington with solid support from Natalie Portman, Susan Sarandon, Thandie Newton, Kathy Bates, breakout Room star Jacob Tremblay, and more.

The language may have changed, but Dolan's recurring obsessions still play a defining role in The Death and Life of John F. Donovan. Semi-autobiographical mommy issues are once again a key source of drama, this time upping the stakes with not just one but two parallel plots about sensitive young men locked in permanent psychic warfare with domineering mothers. Tensions around sexuality and homophobia also figure in the mix, though the film's tastefully middlebrow aesthetic is decidedly less queer than most of the director's camp, sexy, style-heavy canon.

Dolan has always divided critics. But whatever his youthful limitations, the 29-year-old Montreal auteur typically displays a strong visual eye and a flair for emotional fireworks. However, both these elements are unusually muted here. Pulled from Cannes by the director himself because of extensive edit problems, The Death and Life of John F. Donovan has just world-premiered at the Toronto film festival. Box office prospects will largely be driven by that starry cast, even if they are mostly squandered in this half-baked, cumbersome, overlong psychodrama.

Dolan corals the narrative with a clunky old dramatic device, a series of flashbacks framed in the form of an interview that rising young screen star Rupert Turner (Ben Schnetzer) gives to a cynical journalist (Newton). More than a decade earlier, as an aspiring child actor living in London with his single mom (Portman), the schoolboy Rupert (Tremblay) sent regular fan letters to his favorite TV star, John F. Donovan (Harington), the lead in a hit supernatural TV drama with vaguely Harry Potter-ish overtones. To his amazement, Donovan wrote back, kicking off a long, clandestine correspondence between the two.

Like his preteen fanboy, Donovan is a lonely misfit scarred forever by a typically Dolan-esque, adversarial relationship with his overbearing mother (Sarandon). With his sexuality deeply in the closet, he uses a longtime female friend as his official beard, until one day when a careless hookup leads to his public outing and career meltdown. Meanwhile, at school in London, Rupert becomes a victim of bullying with an undercurrent of homophobia. When cruel classmates steal his letters from Donovan, their shared secret blows up into an international news story.

Dolan has labored hard to yoke together these tricksy, time-jumping, intertwined plots, reportedly editing down a mountain of material over two years. In the process, a whole character played by Jessica Chastain was surgically removed. But however long he tinkered, Dolan has not quite salvaged a story whose default setting seems to be mirthless, ponderous navel-gazing. He seems to be so in love with these autobiographical characters, he fails to make them remotely charming or even accessible to his viewers. His English-language dialogue is also graceless and tin-eared. Not even veteran screen heavyweights like Sarandon and Bates can make this leaden prose come alive. A brief cameo by Michael Gambon as a Yoda-like sage dispensing wise life lessons feels corny and clumsy.

Made with great technical polish, The Death and Life of John F. Donovan does at least offer some sensory pleasures, including cinematographer Andre Turpin's sumptuous color schemes and elegant camerawork. Music has always been a vivid presence in Dolan's work too, with shiny pop hits and delirious dance numbers expertly embedded into previous films. Less so here, where Gabriel Yared's syrupy, emotionally didactic score intrudes on almost every scene, sometimes even threatening to drown out dialogue. The story climaxes with The Verve's "Bittersweet Symphony," a blowhard fanfare of hollow triumphalism masquerading as a profound commentary on the human condition. The parallels with Dolan's latest film hardly need spelling out here.

Production companies: Lyla Films, Sons Of Manual, Warp Films
Cast: Kit Harington, Jacob Tremblay, Natalie Portman, Susan Sarandon, Thandie Newton, Kathy Bates, Ben Schnetzer, Michael Gambon
Director: Xavier Dolan
Screenwriters: Xavier Dolan, Jacob Tierney

Producers: Lyse Lafontaine, Nancy Grant, Xavier Dolan, Michel Merkt
Cinematographer: Andre Turpin
Editors: Xavier Dolan, Mathieu Denis
Music: Gabriel Yared
Sales company: CAA

Venue: Toronto International Film Festival (Special Presentations)

123 minutes