When Ben Kingsley gets hold of a role he really connects with (I don’t mean one of those shticky New Yawk scoundrels he loves to overplay in You Kill Me or The Wackness), he has no need to create fireworks; he lights up a character from within. In Elegy, which is adapted from Philip Roth’s novella The Dying Animal, Kingsley portrays the sort of aging lothario who is usually reduced to a type — David Kepesh, a 60ish academic and critic who uses his minor-league celebrity to hustle graduate students into bed. Kingsley, with his forlorn eagle stare, makes a study of this man’s seductive power (it’s his way of saying less than he knows), and it’s easy to see how Consuela (Penélope Cruz), a sophisticated beauty in one of his classes, gets drawn into his orbit.
We certainly know why he’s drawn to her. Kingsley doesn’t just voice Roth’s rhapsodies of male ego and desire. He makes you hear what they truly are: desperate pleas for faith, a need to know if the lust that rules him is about giving or just taking. (It’s the former, but he’s too scared to see it.) There’s a poetic irony to the idea that it took a female filmmaker to finally do justice to Philip Roth on screen. Director Isabel Coixet sees David’s tragedy, but also his life force, and she draws brilliant work out of Cruz, as an unorthodox woman who knows what she wants; Patricia Clarkson, tender and worldly-wise as David’s mistress; and Dennis Hopper, who makes you believe (I swear) that he’s a Pulitzer Prize-winning poet. A