Let’s just hope Louis Drax doesn’t have a 10th life anytime soon.
Poor Jamie Dornan. He is once again the lead actor in a film that is well acted, ably directed and beautifully filmed but unfortunately operating off of a complete mess of a script, just as he was in last year’s 50 Shades of Grey. In fact, the crimes of The 9th Life of Louis Drax are even more egregious because its source material (Liz Jensen’s 2006 novel) was loved by audiences and critics alike, whereas 50 Shades of Grey received few critical accolades as a book or film.
Pity should not be reserved for Dornan alone, though. While he manages to avoid embarrassment in the underwritten role of psychologist Dr. Allan Pascal, the real revelation of the film, leading lady Sarah Gadon (of David Croneneberg’s A Dangerous Method and Cosmopolis), is literally all dressed up with nowhere to go as she commands attention in Carla Hetland’s amazing costumes but is given nothing to say or do. Still, both Dornan and Gadon fare better than the completely wasted Aaron Paul, Barbara Hershey, Oliver Platt, Terry Chen and Julian Wadham.
Gadon plays Natalie Drax, mother to the titular Louis (a miscast, misdirected Aiden Longworth). Louis is comatose, and his father (Paul) is missing following a mysterious cliff-top accident. Natalie finds herself waiting bedside as Dr. Pascal searches for a way to wake Louis up. From there, the story alternates scenes from the main narrative with Louis-narrated flashbacks to his accident-prone childhood (he’s nearly died eight times, hence the ninth life in the title), his parents’ messy relationship and his visits to the office of Dr. Perez (Platt).
There are major problems with both timelines, and debut scribe Max Minghella’s screenplay is primarily at fault. In flashback, Louis’s dialogue makes him seem bored and mean-spirited rather than mysterious and precocious (not helped by Longworth’s flat-voiced delivery and severe expressions). And in the present, there is little velocity to the storyline, as the script focuses on an ill-advised romance between Natalie and Pascal rather than the film’s central mystery.
Still, there are bright spots. The wonderful Molly Parker (House of Cards) is in excellent form as a grumpy police detective who, like the audience, can’t quite bring herself to believe all of the craziness going on around her. Maxime Alexandre’s gorgeous cinematography makes San Francisco the best it has looked since Vertigo (which, coupled with Gadon’s resemblance to Kim Novak, makes for a lovely and surely intentional homage). And the end has a rather nifty twist but one that can’t make up for the 90 minutes leading up to it.
The biggest kudos must go to Gadon, who is absolutely luminous and certain to be an even bigger star than she is already, and Dornan, who once again takes a thankless part and infuses it with sensitivity, humanity and sexiness. Director Alexandre Aja deserves mention also, if only for wringing something so visually appealing and moderately coherent out of such a sodden script, but a caveat must be made for his direction of Longworth. The best performances by children (such as Quvenzhané Wallis in Beasts of the Southern Wild, Keisha Castle-Hughes in Whale Rider, Anna Paquin in The Piano and, most recently, Jacob Tremblay in Room) have one consistent quality about them: that the child is allowed to unabashedly remain a child onscreen. The combination of Minghella’s dialogue and Aja’s direction has Longworth behaving like a disgruntled 20-something trapped in a nine year old’s body.
It’s terribly sad to see a film with as many good qualities as The 9th Life of Louis Drax end up being so lackluster. Still, even with the dead-in-the-water screenplay and problematic titular character, it is rewarding to watch so much excellent raw material at work. Let’s just hope Louis Drax doesn’t have a 10th life anytime soon.