The Death and Life of John F. Donovan Explained: What’s Up With the Ending?

Pros: acting by Natalie Portman and Susan Sarandon; film aesthetics Cons: editing; lack of a unified structure; an attempt to tell a story through an interview interspersed with extraneous memories, “The Death and Life of John F. Donovan”

Drama genre
Directed by Xavier Dolan
Cast: Kit Harington (John F. Donovan), Natalie Portman (Sam Turner), Jacob Tremblay (young Rupert Turner), Ben Schnetzer (Rupert Turner), Susan Sarandon (Grace Donovan), Thandie Newton (Audrey Newhouse), Emily Hampshire (Amy Bosworth), etc.
Lyla Films, Sons of Manual, Warp Films
Year of release 2019
IMDB page

The drama script is not a recreation of real events. However, Xavier Dolan was inspired to create this film by his own childhood action. After watching Titanic, eight-year-old Xavier wrote a letter to Leonardo DiCaprio, in which he admired the actor. Naturally, DiCaprio did not answer the letter, but the situation was etched in Dolan’s memory. And he, having become a director, decided to recreate an insignificant incident from the past, complementing it with a large-scale fantasy. This is how the film “The Death and Life of John F. Donovan” came about.

The film introduces a hero named Rupert Turner (Ben Schnetzer). He talks with a journalist, reminiscing about his childhood. Rupert claims that, as a schoolboy, he had an active correspondence with the famous actor of the early 2000s, John F. Donovan (Kit Harington). In letters addressed to the boy, Donovan talked about his career and shared personal experiences that became acute under the pressure of popularity. One day the correspondence broke off, and the secret of their communication became public knowledge.

Director Xavier Dolan devoted several years to this film. Back in 2014, he began gathering actors, and two years later began the filming process. In 2018, Dolan could have presented the film at Cannes, but the director refused to participate in the film festival, deciding to reconsider the editing of his film. And this, judging by the result, was a big mistake – it was the editing that crossed out all the good moments in the drama.


The film, without a doubt, could have turned out to be quite interesting, but Xavier Dolan was too clever. Difficulties also arose in the structure of the tape. The Death and Life of John F. Donovan is a story within a story, with several plots jumping around in time. The narrative either unfolds under the guidance of the narrator in the person of Rupert, or goes free-floating. For example, episodes from the life of John F. Donovan appear on their own and exist as a separate storyline. Because of this, one gets the impression that when editing the film, duplicates from other films were accidentally added to it.


At the same time, the plot of the film is initially addictive; there are characters in it that you want to sympathize with – take, for example, young Rupert, played by the original Jacob Trembler. In addition, there are actors in the frame who can convey any emotion (the wonderful Natalie Portman and Susan Sarandon). Unfortunately, by the middle of the film, all this no longer works – the variety of scenes begins to confuse. Xavier Dolan ironically shows the popularity of the actors, then dramatically and protractedly reveals the complex relationships of the main characters with their mothers (Dolan’s favorite theme, repeated from film to film), and then for some reason adds sentimental inserts in the spirit of family Hollywood films. Or, even worse, he puts pathetic monologues into the mouths of the characters.


The mixed impressions of the film are not helped at all by Kit Harington’s performance. Perhaps the actor gets lost in the large amount of footage, or simply doesn’t know how best to present his character (Harington’s signature emotion is a smile hiding pain). Natalie Portman and Susan Sarandon, on whose shoulders the roles of mothers are entrusted, do their jobs conscientiously, but due to the specifics of the script they remain on the sidelines. At least they weren’t cut out of the film, as happened with Jessica Chastain – the actress also participated in the filming process, but her character’s line increased the film’s timing, so it was cut by the director in the final version.

The visual component does not completely put an end to the film “The Death and Life of John F. Donovan”. The cinematography is by André Turpin, who captures the actors’ faces in close-up shots. It’s also nice to see color reproduction and noise reminiscent of shooting on film. But beautiful photography is still not enough for a film in which there are no clear plot lines and a single final thought.


Despite the long period of work on the drama, The Death and Life of John F. Donovan, it still feels unfinished. The tape resembles excerpts from different films that don’t fit together very well

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