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Review: The Death and Life of John F. Donovan

August 23, 2019

By John Corrado

★★★ (out of 4)

The latest film from Quebec’s Xavier Dolan, and his first one in English, The Death and Life of John F. Donovan is in some ways a departure for the young filmmaker, but it still feels like a work that is distinctly his.

This is his attempt at making something closer to a Hollywood movie, for sure, but it features the same soaring cinematography, musical interludes set to pop songs, and underlying themes of mother-son love as his six previous films.

The film tells two distinct but interconnecting stories. The first one involves an American TV star named John F. Donovan (Kit Harrington), who at the beginning of the film is found dead of an overdose. The second involves Rupert Turner (Jacob Tremblay), an American boy who moved to England with his mother (Natalie Portman), and dreams of being an actor.

The film is centred around the misunderstood pen-pal friendship that Rupert developed with Donovan after writing him a fan letter, which got sensationalized by the media, and the narrative is structured with Rupert as an adult (Ben Schnetzer), telling the real story of these letters to a reporter (Thandie Newton). Through this, we get flashbacks that show him as a boy intercut with scenes from Donovan’s career, revealing the many moments in their lives that mirrored each other, including the relationships they both shared with their mothers. Donvovan’s mother is played by the one and only Susan Sarandon, with Dolan offering her many opportunities to go toe-to-toe with Harrington in their scenes together.

I know The Death and Life of John F. Donovan has gotten mostly mixed reactions since its premiere at TIFF last year, where it was somewhat intentionally buried, but I actually liked it, warts and all. Not all of the characters and story strands feel equally well developed, probably due to the fact that the film has gone through a lot of delays and changes on its way to the screen, with the most publicized of them being the fact that Jessica Chastain had all of her scenes cut out late into post-production. The first cut of the film was reportedly a whopping four hours long, with Dolan cutting it down by half to roughly two hours for its eventual release.

I’ve liked all of Dolan’s previous films, so maybe I’m biased, but I found stuff to like here. While the film does segue into melodrama at certain points, and it is certainly flawed, The Death and Life of John F. Donovan also kept me engaged enough to find it entertaining, and I would be genuinely curious to see a much longer director’s cut at some point. As it is, the film functions as an enjoyable tribute to pop culture, that has some intriguing things to say about modern outrage culture. Even if it doesn’t reach the heights of Dolan’s other films, notably his stunning 2014 masterpiece Mommy, this is still a stylish and well acted entry into his filmography that I think is worth seeing for fans of his work.

The Death and Life of John F. Donovan is now playing in limited release at Cineplex Cinemas Varsity in Toronto.

A version of this review was originally published during the 2018 Toronto International Film Festival.

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