The Death and Life of John F Donovan – a curious and incomplete mess

18th April 2020

The Death and Life of John F Donovan is now available to rent or buy.

Five years after it entered production, Xavier Dolan’s first English language movie has quietly arrived on streaming platforms, bypassing cinemas. Due to a cacophony of negative reviews, hopes were not high for The Death and Life of John F Donovan. But could it really be as bad as the critics stated; after all, Xavier Dolan remains one of the most creative directors in modern cinema. There is no straightforward answer in a film that feels terribly incomplete.

The Death and Life of John F Donovan is alive with hope in its cinematography, performances and initial potential; however, large chunks of Dolan’s film hit the editing room floor, including the scenes starring Jessica Chastain as a gossip column journalist. Was this due to studio pressures? Or did Dolan lose his way? We may never know, but the result is a narrative mess not unlike The Goldfinch. This is a pity as there are fascinating discussions held within Dolan’s haphazard work, from a brave discussion on the homophobia at the heart of Hollywood to the idolisation of actors by young people dealing with their own social struggles.

The Death and Life of John F Donovan finds its creative spark in Dolan’s childhood experiences. Here the subject is a letter Dolan wrote to his idol as a boy, hoping for a response. Of course, this is something many of us can relate to, but in Dolan’s imaginary world, it becomes a correspondence that lasts years as the twenty-something television star John F Donovan (Kit Harrington) openly discusses his trials and tribulations with an 11-year-old aspiring actor Rupert (Jacob Tremblay). Their letters provide emotional support and inspiration as one suffers homophobic bullying in school, and the other hides his sexuality from an industry built on heteronormative rules.

However, in joining these two narrative arcs, Xavier Dolan’s film also comes unstuck due to a run time that never allows either story to conclude appropriately. Despite its admirable ideas, Dolan’s story quickly trips up with a curious and incomplete ending that feels far too rushed and simplistic. However, despite these failings, The Death and Life of John F Donovan isn’t beyond hope, and I, for one, would be keen to see the original 4-hour cut.

Director: Xavier Dolan

Cast: Kit Harington, Natalie Portman, Jacob Tremblay, Susan Sarandon, Kathy Bates, Ben Schnetzer, Thandie Newton

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