The Death and Life of John F Donovan (Review) – A curious mix of beauty, strength and weakness

Five years after it first started production, Xavier Dolan’s first English language movie has finally and quietly arrived on streaming platforms. After bypassing cinemas in the UK and spending a lengthy period of time in the editing suite. While also having been duly slated by critics on its short festival run in 2018. Therefore, hopes were not high for The Death and Life of John F Donovan. But despite this, I was keen to explore Xavier Dolan’s seventh movie. Not least due to my ongoing belief that Dolan is one of the finest young writer/directors in modern cinema. So is The Death and Life of John F Donovan the worst film he has made to date?

There is no straight forward answer to this question, in a film that ultimately feels strangely incomplete. Yet also shines in cinematography, performances and potential. Drawing distinct parallels with The Goldfinch in why it suffered so badly in both the storyboarding and editing process. We know, for example, that a large chunk of the film was cut. Including the scenes starring Jessica Chastain as a gossip column journalist. This ultimately took the films final running time from four hours to two. And while this may have been done for the best of intentions, it leaves a gaping hole in the narrative. Raising the question of whether pressure to decrease the length of the film lay at the heart of its woes.

This does not, however, mean that what remains is bad, in fact, there is a whole lot to admire. From the brave decision to explore the discrimination present in Hollywood for closeted gay actors. To the need for young people to feel that the on-screen idols they love, represent their own struggles and dreams.

As with all Xavier Dolan pictures, The Death and Life of John F Donovan finds its creative spark from Dolan’s own childhood experiences. Having written to Leonardo DiCaprio as a boy, hoping for a response from the actor he idolised. This is something everyone can relate to, whether your idol was a musician, actor or a sports star. For me, it was always actors, spending most of my time in front of a cinema screen or in an imaginary world. And I will personally never forget receiving a letter from the legendary Robin Williams. An actor who took the time to respond to a 12-year-old, offering both inspiration and best wishes for my future. Unfortunately, I long since misplaced that letter, after holding it close for so many years.

But back to the film, where the narrative centres on two main characters. One a twenty-something television star John F Donovan (Kit Harrington) who is about to break into film. His fame and fortune hiding his own sexuality from the public gaze. While he struggles to overcome a sense of loneliness caused by a need to hide his true self. The second being 11-year-old aspiring actor Rupert (Jacob Tremblay), who lives with his failed actress mother (Natalie Portman) in London. His idol being John F Donovan, a man he has secretly been writing too for five years. Their letters providing emotional support and inspiration to each other. As one suffers homophobic bullying in school and the other hides his sexuality from an industry built on heterosexual prerequisites.

However, it is possibly within the joining of these narrative arcs that Xavier Dolan’s film comes unstuck. Mainly due to a running time that does not allow both to coexist in achieving a fully realised conclusion. Yet it is also here where The Death and Life of John F Donovan provides its most fascinating commentary. As we explore the link between the school orientated homophobia faced by a young boy, and the institutional homophobia faced by a Hollywood star. With both forms of experience indicative of the need to keep ones true self hidden from the public gaze. The man echoing the experience of the boy, and the boy learning from the man before adulthood sets in.

However, there are also problems in the narrative at play, from the secretive nature of the letters between a man and a boy. Through to the revelation of letters existing, through a school show and tell. Equally problematic are several scenes that feel random to the overarching story, particularly towards the end of the film. Where yet again editing seems rushed and incomplete. This essentially leaves us with curious seventh film from Xavier Dolan. One that shines in performances and themes, but fails to deliver in the story. Ultimately feeling too short, too rushed and too simple.

When compared to Brady Corbet’s Vox Lux of the same year, the exploration of the Hollywood system also lacks bite. Opting for melodrama rather than a hard-edged reflection of the experience of young gay actors kept in the closet by studios and managers. However, despite these failings, The Death and Life of John F Donovan isn’t awful. Offering us glimpses of the film that could have been. While exploring themes that deserved more time to flourish and match the beautiful cinematography and performances at the film’s heart. And to this end, I would certainly be interested in viewing the original 4-hour cut.

Director: Xavier Dolan

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


Jacob Tremblay also appears in Good Boys and Doctor Sleep

Natalie Portman also stars in Vox Lux

You may also like Xaiver Dolan’s Mommy, I Killed My Mother and Matthias and Maxime