Back in 1959, Frederic March, Oscar-winning dramatic actor of his era, did a Paddy Cheyefsky story, Middle of the Night, in which he played a widowed Jewish manufacturer who falls in love with a gorgeous young shiksa from the shop. Of course, his family is furious with him. “What an old fool, it won’t work, she’s using you,” and when he believes them and leaves her, he turns really old, finished…until a tragedy makes him realize that to live, really live, you have to take a chance. As it turns out, the girl — the beautiful Kim Novak — is also needful, coming from a depressing, hopeless home, and this older man is her one chance at happiness.
In 2006, Peter O’Toole did Venus – more of an April/November situation. Remember O’Toole in Lion in Winter, where he played an aging king wanting to divorce an aging queen (Katharine Hepburn) to marry his young mistress? In Venus, he is simply a very old man finding pleasure — a few last moments of happiness in the company of a young woman.
In 2007, Frank Langella did Starting Out in the Evening, an emotional and not a sexual exercise for an actor who, in an early role, played one of the most erotic, the most sexual… Please rent Diary of a Mad Housewife or, for that matter, take a look at his Dracula. As I watched that one, I wanted to open my collar, expose my throat, and invite him in for a drink. So Starting Out, like Venus, was again the emotional entanglements of an old man with a rather contriving, very young woman.
Elegy is quite something else, primarily because the “older man” is Ben Kingsley. Not long ago, he did a tour-de-force performance as a man in fury, a jealous man who wants a woman and will destroy the man who has her. Fury of body, mind, spirit. So to see Ben Kingsley as the older man to young and beautiful Penelope Cruz is a May/September of a different color. This older man has never been able to commit — not to his wife, not to his son, not to his lover…and what happens when this famous professor who always sleeps with his favorite student end of semester does it again…and something different happens?
The “warning Jewish family” of Middle of the Night is now personified in an atypical role by Dennis Hopper. The usual…it won’t work, she’s too young. Like the earlier film, the girl has her own issues and she really falls in love with this older but charismatic guy, and of course he cannot commit. His virility is never in doubt. He’s just bald, his hands are veined, and when they caress this gorgeous, velvety young body…well, it’s either creepy or fascinating. You decide.
Kingsley’s struggle is with commitment — not only to a young woman but to his own son…a theme, if you consider film today, is not often considered, except, I suppose, for Knocked Up, where the mother decides to commit to the father of her baby, a totally undeveloped nerd who does, in a one-minute flash, get himself a job.
Like Daniel Day-Lewis and Jeremy Irons, Ben Kingsley is one of our treasures, an actor who can slip into and become his role. His control, his tension, in this film, his slow recognition of the flaw in his nature, his ultimate conversion makes Elegy a cut above. If you have not yet seen the film and intend to, let me suggest that first you take out a couple of videos. Watch his performance in Sexy Beast, and watch his performance in Death and the Maiden in which he plays a very respectable doctor in a now-stable new regime who accidentally stumbles into the home of a woman who, in the last regime, was the subject of his rape and torture.
Elegy is the struggle of an emotionally alienated man who plays sex as a game until the moment when something more is asked of him. Not spring/autumn but a beautifully played winter thaw.