Isabel Coixet Offers Hard Lesson in Love for Obsessed Teacher

“Elegy,” the latest English-language effort from Spanish director Isabel Coixet (“My Life Without Me,” “The Secret Life of Words”), feels like an elegant dinner party to which the audience is fortunate enough to have been invited. It’s finely crafted and well prepared, serving multiple, varied courses at the appropriate times. And the conversations are scintillating.

Charismatic professor and literary critic David (British actor Sir Ben Kingsley) finds himself having a love affair with his former student who’s decades younger, apparently not for the first time. David has had his eye on Consuela (Spanish actress Penélope Cruz), a striking young woman who just finished his course at a New York university intended to evoke Columbia. Consuela is exceptionally beautiful and well mannered in a formal sense that’s a throwback to the past. She’s also full of confidence — not just a star-struck youngster with a crush on her teacher. It’s no wonder David is smitten.

In fact, David is not just smitten — he’s obsessed by Consuela and her beauty, finding himself incomplete when he’s not with her. Perhaps even more unsettling, he can’t fathom the possibility that their affair will last. Sooner or later, he thinks she’ll decide that he’s too old for her, so David never fully opens himself up to Consuela, resulting in actions that lead to the end of the affair anyway.

Nicholas Meyer’s screenplay is elegantly adapted from Philip Roth’s novella “The Dying Animal.” Coixet’s direction is tautly effective. Every note feels right. The acting by Kingsley and Cruz is superb, both together and apart from each other. Fine supporting performances also come from Dennis Hopper (as David’s poet friend George), Patricia Clarkson (as David’s middle-age lover Carolyn), and Peter Sarsgaard (as David’s semi-estranged son Kenneth).

Elegy (English; 108 min.) Landmark’s E Street Cinema Opens Fri., Aug. 8

4 out of 5 stars

A for ‘Boy A’

The British sleeper “Boy A,” from Irish-born helmer John Crowley (“Intermission”), offers a touching examination of a juvenile offender’s attempt to start a new life and leave the past behind him. It starts off quietly, but with Crowley’s steady direction driving the buildup, it slowly picks up steam until the pot boils over.

The exposition is revealed via flashbacks and meetings between the young protagonist Jack (Andrew Garfield) and his sympathetic caseworker Terry (Peter Mullan). Jack has just been released from prison and set up with a new name, apartment and job with a delivery company in Manchester. Jack doesn’t want too much attention, but he’s eager to please. So he does well at his job, makes friends at work, goes out with them, and even picks up a nice girlfriend along the way (Katie Lyons).

What could be better? Well, Jack is still living with the guilt of his heinous crime. His new life just doesn’t seem quite real to him, especially when he has to hide his past from everybody, particularly his new girlfriend as their relationship develops. The gulf between Jack’s past and present widens when he suddenly becomes a media-dubbed hero after helping to save a child from an auto accident. But the last thing Jack needs is a return to the public spotlight to bring attention onto himself.

The screenplay — which was adapted by Mark O’Rowe from Jonathan Trigell’s popular novel — does the job well enough, even if it’s a bit too neat at times, particularly at the end. Neverthe-less, the ensemble acting is excellent. Garfield’s expressions convey his emotions, which his character Jack cannot hide very well, Lyons is effective as the fiery yet warm girlfriend, and as always, caseworker Mullan is riveting with his powerful presence.

Boy A (English; 100 min.) Landmark’s E Street Cinema Opens Fri., Aug. 8

4 out of 5 stars

High-Wire ‘Man’

British director James Marsh’s (“The King”) documentary “Man on Wire” recently premiered in the D.C. area at the AFI Silver Theatre’s Silverdocs film festival after winning the Grand Jury Prize and the Documentary World Cinema Audience Award at Sundance 2008. It tells the fascinating story of Frenchman Philippe Petit, who in the early 1970s decided to walk on a wire between the twin towers of the World Trade Center, which at the time was being built as the tallest buildings in the world. The film is adapted from the book “To Reach the Clouds” written by Petit. “Man on Wire” plays like a real-life heist movie, albeit a well-directed one, which moves along to a Michael Nyman score. There’s some extraordinary footage documenting how Petit’s team used research, models and practice to plan the job and illicitly gain access to the towers. The archival scenes blend smoothly with current-day interviews and some recreations, which also add to the explication of how Petit’s high-wire crime went down. Humorously, especially from today’s perspective, there was tension between the French and the American members of Petit’s motley crew, who didn’t trust each other. There’s also backstory that attempts to explain Petit’s motivation, much of which comes from his then-girlfriend Annie Allix. Basically, Petit always wanted to climb things, like many boys growing up. But Petit’s yen for climbing never faded, leading him to walk between towers at the Notre Dame Cathedral and the Sydney Bridge. Eventually, he made a career out of his passion, becoming a legitimate artist with decades of sanctioned walks. Even today, Petit is full of enthusiasm and energy, which makes him even more of a star than his feats alone would warrant. In this way, the extra touch of show business combined with audacious daredevilry makes him a sort of walking Evel Knievel.

Man on Wire (English and French with subtitles; 94 min.) Landmark’s E Street Cinema Opens Fri., Aug. 8

4 out of 5 stars

Repertory Notes

Please see International FilmClips for detailed listings available at press time.

AFI Silver Theatre Continuing series include “Totally Awesome 2: More Films of the 1980s” (through Sept. 4); “AFI Life Achievement Award Retrospective: Warren Beatty” (through Sept. 2); “David Lean: A Centennial Celebration” (through Sept. 1); “Johnny To: Action Auteur” (through Aug. 18); “The Films of Milo Forman” (through Sept. 3); and “Steven Spielberg Retrospective, Part 1” (through Sept. 4). (301) 495-6700, www.afi.com/Silver

National Gallery of Art “Afghanistan on Film” (through Sept. 6) — presented in conjunction with the exhibit “Afghanistan: Hidden Treasures from the National Museum, Kabul” — includes nonfiction, semi-fictional and documentary works, as well as short subjects, television films and recent experimental video. “Michelangelo Antonioni: The Italian Treasures” (through Aug. 24) looks at the late director’s films made in Italy before he went international. (202) 842-6799, www.nga.gov/programs/film

Freer Gallery of Art The 13th annual “Made in Hong Kong Film Festival” continues through Aug. 24. (202) 357-2700, www.asia.si.edu/events/films.asp

Goethe Institut “Best of Film | Neu: Summer Sizzlers” (through Aug. 25) brings back hits from this festival of new German-language films. (202) 289-1200, www.goethe.de/ins/us/was/kue/flm/enindex.htm

About the Author

Ky N. Nguyen is the film reviewer for The Washington Diplomat.