The Death & Life of John F. Donovan was a painful film to make for Xavier Dolan (“Mommy”, “It’s Only the End of the World”). It is his first feature in English, biggest budget yet, shot between three different countries (USA, England and Czech Republic) with an impressive cast of legendary actors and rising stars – a big project he may not have been totally ready to handle.
Originally a highly-anticipated film, it is now more known for its delaying (two years of editing), scandal (Dolan cutting all of Jessica Chastain’s scenes from the film), critical failure at the Toronto International Film Festival and, as of yet, lack of distribution in any country except France. And while it is true that The Death & Life suffers from clear problems (especially editing-wise), the final product of such a tortuous journey turns out quite well as an enjoyable, average film in Dolan’s filmography.
It all starts with 11 years-old Rupert Turner, Jacob Tremblay (“Room”, “Wonder“), a child actor obsessed with rising star John F. Donovan, Kit Harington (“Brimstone“, “Seventh Son”), with whom he has been secretly corresponding for years. Their letters are a secret Rupert keeps from his mother Sam, Natalie Portman (“Annihilation”, “Jackie“), a struggling single mother whose jadedness towards the acting industry Rupert resents.
On the other end of the correspondence, Donovan also keeps the letters a secret, just like everything else from his life. Publicly married to his best friend and fellow actress Amy, Emily Hampshire (“12 Monkeys”, “Schitt’s Creek”), he is actually a closeted homosexual fearful of the repercussions his private life could have on his ascending career.
The profound sense of loneliness that both Rupert and John experience, as well as their shared passion for acting, is what sparks the unlikely friendship between the two; but this correspondence might not be enough to save them from their pain.
Xavier Dolan presents this story in a bookended way, with 22 years-old Rupert, Ben Schnetzer (“Pride”, “The Book Thief”), now a famous actor, telling the story of his childhood and relationship with Donovan to an indifferent journalist, Thandie Newton (“Westworld”, “Crash”) forced to interview him.
This convoluted way of showing the story is one of the film’s main flaw: finding a good balance between the stories of John and young Rupert is hard enough without adding a third narrative that drags the film down.
Unfortunately, this isn’t the only faulty editing choice: some scenes run on for far too long, repeating what has already been said, while important plot points are lost in a jumble of unnecessary dialogues. Nevertheless, the main story is still easy to follow and the intersection of all three storylines highlights the parallels between John and Rupert that are at the heart of the film.
Indeed, besides Dolan’s usual themes (life as a gay man and conflicting relationships between mother and son – a theme that is here multiplied with two sets of mother and son: Rupert & Sam and John & Grace, Susan Sarandon (“Thelma & Louise”, “Dead Man Walking”)), there is also a touching exploration of legacy and inspiration.
Donovan’s successes and failures all have a positive impact on Rupert who can learn from them in his own journey. While Rupert has Donovan’s concrete support in the forms of his letters, the film will inevitably speak to everyone who has ever admired someone and drawn strength from this one-way relationship. In this aspect, the film is incredibly moving and powerful: while the execution may be lacking, Dolan’s intentions while writing and shooting this film are very clear and still manage to shine through.
The cast of the film is incredible, but not everyone gets the same spotlight. Susan Sarandon and Kathy Bates (“Misery”, “Titanic”), who respectively play John’s mother and agent, only have a few scenes, while Thandie Newton is more present but given very little to actually do.
Similarly, Amara Karan (“The Darjeeling Limited”, “A Fantastic Fear of Everything“) and Sarah Gadon (“Enemy”, “Belle”) have roles that look to be important but in effect distract from the main story.
Worse of all, Michael Gambon (the “Harry Potter” series, “Gosford Park”) makes a small appearance in the film’s most cringe-worthy scene, one that seems to come straight out of an old Christmas TV movie. On the other hand, Natalie Portman makes a rather paper-thin character come to life while Jacob Tremblay and Kit Harrington completely steal the show.
In the end, the film is a mess – but a good one. It can be a frustrating watch, but its emotional core is incredibly powerful and will touch anyone watching. Most of all, it is Dolan’s most accessible film yet, and I believe that creating a mainstream film that tackles role models, childhood dreams, staying true to oneself and homosexuality in Hollywood is exactly what Dolan intended to do regardless of the film’s actual quality.
With this in mind, it is a shame that the film isn’t being distributed anywhere besides France. I hope that other distributors will pick the film, at least to prove that while this isn’t a great Dolan film, it is a good one and not worse than any big-budget drama, despite the film’s reputation.