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Review: ‘The Death and Life of John F. Donovan’ finds a filmmaker in transition

Kit Harington in “The Death and Life of John F. Donovan.”
Kit Harington in “The Death and Life of John F. Donovan.”
(Shayne Laverdiere / Momentum Pictures)

Growing up in public can’t be easy. The French-Canadian filmmaker and actor Xavier Dolan saw his first film, “I Killed My Mother,” premiere at the Cannes Film Festival in 2009 when he was barely 20 years old, and he has been a fixture of the international festival circuit ever since.

His seventh feature film, “The Death and Life of John F. Donovan” is his English-language debut and features a cast including Kit Harington, Natalie Portman, Thandie Newton, Jacob Tremblay and Susan Sarandon. An examination of fame and identity, the film is about a doomed heartthrob TV actor (Harington) who strikes up an unlikely pen pal relationship with a young boy (Tremblay) and the deep impact it has on both their lives.

Harington’s Donovan struggles with publicly acknowledging his identity as a gay man, which causes his fame and career to become increasingly painful for him.

The movie feels disjointed and made up of parts that Dolan couldn’t bring together as it shuffles between three story strands. Moments such as Portman and Tremblay as mother and son reuniting in the rain to Florence and the Machine’s version of “Stand By Me” capture the expressive emotional maximalism of Dolan’s best work, but the sequences with Harington in particular often feel listless and lifeless.

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The movie itself seems like an expression of some kind of growing pains, even as the young director confidently works with big-name actors. The prolific Dolan has already unveiled another movie since “John F. Donovan” premiered in the fall of 2018, so this relative stumble can perhaps be filed away as a transitional curio.

'The Death and Life of John. F. Donovan'
Rated: R for language throughout and some sexual material

Running Time: 2 hours and 3 minutes

Playing: Arena Cinelounge Sunset, Hollywood


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