The Death and Life of John F Donovan: A curious incomplete mess

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


Five years after it started production, Xavier Dolan’s first English language movie has quietly arrived on streaming platforms, bypassing cinemas – the film’s short festival run in 2018 earning a host of negative reviews. Therefore, it is fair to say hopes were not high for The Death and Life of John F Donovan. But Xavier Dolan remains one of the most creative directors in modern cinema, so could his seventh movie really be his worst? There is no straightforward answer to this question, in a film that feels incomplete.

The Death and Life of John F Donovan shines in its cinematography, performances and potential, drawing parallels to the ill-fated The Goldfinch. However, we already know a large chunk of Dolan’s film hit the editing room floor, including the scenes starring Jessica Chastain as a gossip column journalist. This decision and others would take the film’s final run time down from four hours to two, but it leaves us with a gaping hole in the narrative. Was this due to studio pressures? Or did Dolan lose his way? We may never know, but the result is a narrative mess.


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This is a pity as there are fascinating discussions held within Dolan’s haphazard work. For example, there is a brave decision to explore the discrimination and oppression at the heart of Hollywood for closeted gay actors. While at the same time, attempts are made to explore how young people idolise those stars who often represent their own struggles and dreams.

As with the majority of Dolan’s pictures, The Death and Life of John F Donovan finds its creative spark from Dolan’s own 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. Still, 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 heterosexuality.


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However, it is within the joining of these two narrative arcs that Xavier Dolan’s film also comes unstuck due to a run time that never allows either story to conclude. Despite its admirable ideas, Dolan’s story quickly trips up in a curious but incomplete ending that feels rushed and simple. 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