I’m a huge fan of Xavier Dolan’s work (movies and music videos). So, it was mandatory to review his latest movie: The Death and Life of John F. Donovan.
As a Dolan fan from the beginning, I was a little bit afraid when I first heard about this English speaking movie with an American cast (Kit Harrington, Natalie Portman, Jessica Chastain – cut in editing, Susan Sarandon). His previous movie disappointed me; I didn’t like the story so much even if the actors were great. So, I was waiting to see Dolan returning to form. The movie theater was crowded mostly with young people, who sociologically represents Dolan’s generation (born between 1985 and 1998).
The Story of Dolan’s Life
The movie is about an 11 years-old boy, Rupert Turner, who corresponds with a TV show star, John F. Donovan (aka Kit Harington) in 2006. In his letters, the movie star talks about his loneliness, his problems, his relation with his family. It reminds us that Dolan wrote many years ago a letter to Leonardo DiCaprio during the release of Titanic (1997). Now, he’s famous, and all his cast too, the spectator can easily see the parallel between what should happen in real life and in the movie. This film shows again how Dolan combines real life and fiction in a really well done way.
There are some core topics in all Dolan movies. First, the relationship son/mother which you can find here twice (Turner and his mother aka Natalie Portman and John F Donovan and his mother played by Susan Sarandon). Then, Xavier Dolan is gay and everyone knows it. His movies often deals with the difficulties of being oneself (I killed my mother, the ambiguity in Heartbeats, the transformation in Lawrence Anyways, Tom at the farm, It’s only the end of the world, and the adaptation of a Lagarde play, a theater writer who died of AIDS, or school bulling in College Boy by the French band Indochine). His latest movie is not an exception to this, and that’s fine. Dolan’s work participates to make homosexuality and transgender visible and acceptable.
A sublime performance
I was anxious about the huge cast and its impact on the movie. Not that I disliked the actors themselves (Natalie Portman is one of my favorite actresses since V for Vendetta (2005)), I was afraid that the cast would “destroy” the story of the movie. Finally, I was pretty surprised by the performance of Kit Harington, far from his character in Game of Thrones, here really human and sensitive. Some mistakes are to be pointed out, for example when the pathos of some scenes are artificially reinforced with music. Something I’m not sensitive to.
An ode to 90’s music
Let’s talk about music. I’ve always LOVED Dolan’s playlists, maybe because it echoes with my own childhood. He was one of the first directors to make me appreciate classical music. The Death and Life of John F. Donovan is a back in the 90’s-2000’s music. His choices are very eclectic from The Verve to Pink or Sum 41. It almost perfectly fits the scenario. Discover here the playlist.
To me, The Death and Life of John F. Donovan is not the best movie of Xavier Dolan but it’s a really good surprise.
Until waiting for his next movie Matt and Max, keep watching old Xavier Dolan movies.
PD: If you speak French and you love Xavier Dolan, I advise you to watch the Arte video about Dolan movies (Spoiler alert if you haven’t seen Heartbeats).