His style usually unleashing an extremely divisive response, Xavier Dolan’s latest opus The Death and Life of John F. Donovan is unlikely to drastically change audiences’ minds. In this, the Québécois director’s first English-language feature, Dolan studies the toxic aspects of stardom, while once again losing his characters within the vagaries of maternal tragedy.
Kit Harington plays Donovan, a spiralling young actor who finds in Rupert Turner (Jacob Tremblay), an 11-year-old fan, the most unexpected pen-pal. Now fully grown, years after John’s death, Rupert (Ben Schnetzer) chooses to gather their correspondence for a book, reflecting on the late star’s state(s) of mind through his words.
With three distinct characters (a young Rupert, his 20-something older self, and Donovan himself), the film – supported by the melancholic touch of cinematographer André Turpin – aspires to intertwine all storylines together, and at times this combination works, opening a door on the characters’ inner vulnerabilities. Full symbiosis, however, never quite occurs. John F. Donovan’s ambition to question the development of identity, both in and out of the public eye, is eclipsed by its confusing speed and rhythm.
While always excelling at portraying the chaotic ballet of family ties, here Dolan struggles to connect mothers with sons. Harington gives a convincing performance, underlining John’s ambivalent side, both in love and in hate with his mother Grace (Susan Sarandon) – a strand sadly under-explored.
Undeniably, the shadow of the invisible main villain (originally played by Jessica Chastain) looms over The Death and Life of John F. Donovan like a missing limb, leaving a feeling of incompleteness. But as flawed as it is, the film occasionally shines through its gloomy atmosphere with an attempt at defining the unfair cost of passion.
CAST: Kit Harington, Natalie Portman, Emily Hampshire, Susan Sarandon
DIRECTOR: Xavier Dolan
WRITERS: Xavier Dolan, Jacob Tierney
SYNOPSIS: A decade after the death of an American TV star, a young actor reminisces the written correspondence he shared with him, as well as the impact those letters had on both their lives.