Time for a Rebirth? Film Review: The Death & Life of John F. Donovan ★★★

Maybe expectations were too high for The Death & Life of John F. Donovan

It looked like the stars were literally aligning for a while, as queer filmmaker Xavier Dolan started working on his first English language feature. The large cast included a collection of talented, swoon-worthy men (Kit Harrington, Nicholas Hoult, Chris Zykla), acclaimed & swoon-worthy women (Natalie Portman, Thandie Newton, Jessica Chastain), screen legends (Sarah Sarandon, Kathy Bates, Michael Gambon), a rising star (Jacob Tremblay) and even one of the stars of Schitt’s Creek (Emily Hampshire). I mean, my God, look at these early character posters – if they don’t scream “Oscar-bait” what does?

Dolan himself had been branching out as a filmmaker, moving away from the exquisitely charted youthful angst of his early films, into more complex territory. Handsome, talented and prolific (eight features in ten years) – it’s quite an achievement for a man barely into his thirties. His film Mommy was particularly well received by critics and it seemed like Dolan was about to break out into mainstream cinema.

The Death & Life of John F. Donovan is a big film. Big cast, big narrative and a big budget (Dolan’s most expensive feature before this was It’s Only the End of the World with an estimated budget of $7.5m USD, John F. Donovan’s estimated budget was $35m USD). It tells the story of a TV star (Kit Harrington’s John F Donovan) on the verge of becoming a major film star, who tries to navigate his sexuality and the industry in the early 00s. As the title suggests, it doesn’t end well. Along the way, he starts an innocent correspondence with a young boy (Rupert) in England that affects both their lives.

There’s something enticing about the core concept. An actor at a crossroads finding a link to his own purest self through the eyes of a prepubescent boy. A child idolising a sexy actor before he could understand his own sexuality and desires. And how the whole thing can be twisted into tabloid fodder by a salacious public hungry for gossip. John F Donovan is forced further into his shell as he tries to protect his career and the life he’s built, while Rupert’s young life is thrown askew by reporters and bullies. 

The fact that Donovan is to all reports not a very good actor adds juice to the mix. I can’t help but think of all those stars of the 90s TV shows like Beverly Hills 90210, Melrose Place and 21 Jump Street who seemed to be about to rule cinema as their faces covered magazines but whose talents couldn’t sustain them. Donovan’s hit TV role is in a teen supernatural drama like those that currently fill our screens. His fear is understandable, his career is built on a facade, a lie and the slightest mistake will bring it down. It’s a great set-up for a tortured character.

But somehow, John F. Donovan ends up coming off as less than the sum of its parts. The Hollywood story takes over the dual narrative but feels less timely than it would have done even a few years earlier. It’s still relevant and true, we don’t yet have a queer Leonardo DiCaprio or Brad Pitt headlining a summer Marvel blockbuster, but we do have a number of queer performers that no longer hide their sexuality and it hasn’t destroyed their careers as many feared it would.

Rupert’s story, being misunderstood at school and the pressure he puts on his single mum (Portman), is less satisfying and can’t hold its own against the stakes of Donovan’s life. Without an even center of gravity the film drifts, making Rupert’s life an overblown B-plot rather than the emotional anchor it feels like it wants to be. 

The all-star casting reminded me of the latter X-Men films, and how the fact Jennifer Lawrence had gone from “critically acclaimed actress” at the begining to “the biggest star in the world”, threw the balance of the ensemble out. Suddenly her Mystique had to be at the center of the story, rather than merely part of a team. John F. Donovan has a similar issue. When you have Susan Sarandon and Natalie Portman you want to give them enough material to sink their teeth into, despite the fact their characters aren’t progressing the plot much beyond giving context.

In fact, rewatching John F. Donovan now, a few years after it originally debuted (it’s tortured release schedule is a whole other matter), it plays more like a prestige mini-series than a film. You binge it, riding the tides of the various characters, plots and emotions. 

John F. Donovan is messy, there are plot threads pulling left and right, the structure doesn’t quite hold together, but the story and the characters are interesting and engaging. I want more of Thandie Newton’s spiky reporter. I want more from Ben Schetzner’s adult Rupert (he replaced Nicholas Hoult due to scheduling delays), and maybe less of Tremblay’s young Rupert (who I found a bit annoying rather than charming). I want more of Kathy Bates’ world weary manager. I want to see where the hell Jessica Chastain would have fit into the whole story (her role, as a tabloid reporter, was removed from the film altogether). The framing device of older Rupert telling his story to a journalist feels forced and laiden with unrealistic exposition. But then again it does give the film a brilliant grace note at the very end which I wouldn’t want to lose either. 

Working in English seems to have left us with a script that feels overwrought and melodramatic. Maybe it was the long production process, Dolan reportedly had the idea five years before starting to write, and took two years to edit the film. It’s a beautiful looking movie, but the Hollywood gloss amplifies some of the soap-opera elements of the story (this soapy vibe is present in many of Dolan’s films, but the indie-aesthetic keeps it in check). Like I said, it’s messy, but for me it’s a “hot mess” – full of gems and potential. 

I am an unabashed admirer of Dolan’s work and even his less-successful films hold me more than many other directors. I’d love to see The Death & Life of John F. Donovan re-edited into a three or four episode series (unlikely given it made back less than 10% of its estimated budget). Spacing out the story more and giving it time to breathe and each thread to come to maturity. I’d like John F. Donovan to have a second life, one that did justice to the story it was telling. 

By Chad Armstrong

The Death and Life of John F. Donovan is available on VOD now.

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