The Human Stain
2003, R, 106 min. Directed by Robert Benton. Starring Anthony Hopkins, Nicole Kidman, Gary Sinise, Wentworth Miller, Jacinda Barrett, Anna Deavere Smith, Harry J. Lennix.
REVIEWED By Kimberley Jones, Fri., Nov. 14, 2003
Somewhat near the end of this adaptation of the 1998 Philip Roth novel, a woman named Faunia Farely (Kidman), a woman who has suffered immeasurable loss, goes to visit a crow at the Audubon Society. The scene – one of huge importance in the novel – is badly truncated here, but director Robert Benton (Places in the Heart) does something clever with the camera. He puts it in the cage with the crow, so that it appears that Faunia is the one behind bars, not the crow. With this metaphor, Benton wordlessly distills one of the novel’s major themes, that of imprisonment: to ourselves and to others, to our basest human desires and to the most ruthless of society’s strictures. The action is set during the Clinton impeachment trial and, in broader strokes, at a time when the grip of political correctness on the nation was nothing short of a stranglehold. It is during this time that a well-respected classics professor – the headstrong, seventysomething, and Jewish Coleman Silk (Hopkins) – resigns in disgrace over charges of racism. (While calling roll, he asks if two students, who have never bothered to show for class, exist or if they are "spooks." He means specters, but because the students are African-American, he is branded a racist.) The ruined Coleman has only one confidant, a reclusive writer named Nathan Zuckerman (Sinise), and it is to Nathan that Coleman confesses the affair he’s having with Faunia, who is some 40 years his junior. As the film explores the relationship between Faunia and Coleman, it also jogs back to the Forties, to a devastating love affair of Coleman’s that changed the path his life took. The Human Stain is built largely on secrets, and the one revealed in flashback is a whopper. (It’s one that the press has freely divulged, so consider yourself warned.) Coleman actually hails from a light-skinned African-American family; stung from a failed relationship, in a pre-civil rights era of uncompromising racism, Coleman decides to "pass" for white. Now, inevitably, comes the time when the issue of casting crops up. First, the easier of the two head-scratchers: aristocratic Nicole Kidman as a beaten-up and beaten-down, chain-smoking cleaning lady? Actually, she’s not as cast-against-type as you’d think: Faunia is defined by the same edgy defensiveness at which Kidman excels. Her Faunia, the victim of sexual abuse at a young age, seems frozen in time, with the fidgety, bobble-headedness of a child ever on the verge of a panic attack. And kudos to the sound technician who captured the constant burn of tobacco and paper, as much a character tic of Faunia’s as Rizzo’s limp through Midnight Cowboy. Hopkins, however, plays more improbably. It’s already a mouthful to swallow a white actor playing an African-American playing a Jew, but all that and a Welsh accent, too? When silent and watchful, Hopkins can be deeply moving (as when he observes his lover dance for him), but once he opens his mouth, the thundering institution of Sir Anthony threatens to engulf the entire film. (In sharp contrast is the quietly stirring performance of Wentworth Miller as the young Coleman.) And yet, for all his overacting, Hopkins’ occasional howling monologue does provide a welcome jolt out of the film’s overwhelming stateliness. The Human Stain – a "prestige picture" through and through – is beautifully shot and, overall, very well-acted (excepting Deavere Smith’s disastrous turn as the black mother Coleman disowns). It nails many of the "issues" put forth by Roth’s novel, and a tip of the hat to screenwriter Nicholas Meyer, who has made a coherent picture from Roth’s labyrinthine plotting. Yet – and forgive the cliché – while Roth’s words veritably leap from the page, they don’t stick to the screen (even with whole passages lifted from the book). Quite simply, the film lacks the novel’s rage: its murderous passions and the apoplectic prose that brings them to life. Benton’s adaptation is too elegant, too composed. For source material so steeped in tragedy, we deserve something messier. Ironically, it’s the lighter moments that stick. Early on, there is a scene in which the two friends – Nathan and Coleman – waltz together: a moment of lyrical, light-hearted joy that charmed the pants off of me. Here, Benton’s gracefulness is fitting. But the darker stuff begs to be handled less delicately than this dance, and in that respect the director stumbles.