In what may be a perfect sophisto storm, none other than Sir Ben Kingsley plays Philip Roth’s academic antihero David Kepesh, a solemn piano underscoring his negotiations with sex, art, and mortality in the Continental Manhattan of Isabel Coixet’s new film, Elegy. Kepesh teaches literature at Columbia and, as a low-key celebrity cultural critic—is there any other kind of intellectual celebrity?—works the NPR/Charlie Rose circuit.
For the second time this year, following The Wackness, Kingsley plays an ethically rudderless man meeting late middle age with a problematic personality forged in the consciousness upheavals of the Sixties (per the vilest commercial ever made: “The generation that swore it would never get old, didn’t”). In The Wackness, he threw a tantrum against the dying of the light; it might’ve been an amusing performance were it not for the implication that there was something heroic about his puling.
Kepesh is something else; the author of a book on America’s hedonistic history, he’s no classical Dionysian. He keeps an immaculate, austerely modern, moodily underlit apartment; there’s a full bar of aperitifs, but he never gets visibly drunk. After abandoning a marriage and a son to fight the sexual revolution, he never relapsed to fidelity, pursuing instead a lifelong litany of affairs (his one recurring lay, a former student, now fortysomething, is played by Patricia Clarkson). No randy old Fernando Rey, Kingsley isolates Kepesh’s libido to a childish sparkle of the eye. A breach in the integrity of the good professor’s defenses comes through a student, Consuelo (Penelope Cruz), a Cuban-American girl whom he tactfully prompts into an affair come semester’s end.