Revisiting The Human Stain

November, 2003, Drama

The Human Stain

On Tuesday, the New York Times carried an interesting article on the theatrical release of this movie, wondering why Miramax, who financed and released it, has been so cautious as to limit the opening to only 160 screens in 25 selected cities. To quote the article, "Reviews were mixed at best---a lukewarm response that began two months ago, when the film had its premiere at the Toronto Film Festival. What happened?" The Times article goes on to answer this rhetorical question by declaring that films about race which lack happy endings are a tough sell, and that's why this highly touted film, with its strong cast, first-rate director and well credentialed source, (Philip Roth's novel) struggles to find an audience.

Don't believe it.

According to the professional critics, much if not all of the blame can be placed on the casting of Anthony Hopkins and Nicole Kidman, suggesting that his patrician style and her sleek, sophisticated good looks get in the way, making it difficult to accept them as the characters they portray. While there's little genuine chemistry between the two and the casting may thus be legitimately questioned, actors of their stature have the ability to compel a suspension of disbelief--if they're given credible lines and solid direction, so this casting analysis wanders off the mark as surely as the "sad movies with racial themes" argument noted above. The real problems with this film lie (1) in the manner in which Robert Benton directed his male lead's interpretation of Coleman Silk, the disgraced classics professor who plunges into a torrid affair with a sluttish working class woman half his age, hiding from her, (as he has from everyone else) the fact that he's been passing for white since his days in college and (2) the emphasis on their love affair rather than his own self-deception.

The article quotes Benton as describing the thrust of Roth's novel as follows: "using passing as a metaphor for something deeper in this culture… He, (the author) is talking about the notion that we can reinvent ourselves every generation, but while we gain our freedom, we leave history behind". 

I haven't read Roth's book, and therefore can't confirm the accuracy of Benton's analysis of it, but let's assume he's correct. If that's the case, as the film's director, doesn't he then have the responsibility to convey how that tradeoff between freedom and a lost past affects the main character? Shouldn't the tension between gaining the wider world only at the expense of losing one's roots become the principal point of the storyline? If this is the case to be made, Benton fails the assignment; in his hands Hopkins' Silk emerges as a rather stilted academician, delivering his lines in a curious cadence and simply disinterested in his own disgrace because he's found a wonderfully erotic distraction in Fauina Farely, Kidman's tormented, blowsy blue-collar seductress.  

Hopkins plays Silk as the aggrieved intellectual, evicted from his comfortable life by a politically correct charge of racism that's meant to be especially cruel since Silk is himself a member of the race he's accused of slandering. Benton cleverly twists the order in which we learn these facts, the better to display the irony of Silk's dilemma--his inability to defend himself against an accusation that cannot be adequately explained because he's suppressed his own racial background. But the plot doesn't focus on that conundrum--it moves so quickly into the affair with Kidman's character the audience is never forced to come to grips with the gravity and consequences of Silk's deception. Benton shifts direction, inviting his audience to examine why Fauina's such an anguished soul, and why she's drawn to Silk's rather constipated personality in the first place. (Does Benton recognize the stolid nature of Hopkins' performance and employ the dance scene with Gary Seniese to counter-balance it?) 

Benton's focus on this fatally flawed love affair, and it's culmination--Kidman's confession at last triggering Silk's admission of his own background--forces the audience to react to their affair rather than Silk's deception as the principal thrust of film, and this produces, I believe, the "poor casting" argument noted above. Benton tries to remedy this imbalance in the final minutes of the film with the belated faculty apology at Silk's funeral and the final speech of his long-lost sister, but it's too late--the director has pointed his audience at the wrong subject, the doomed inter-class love affair, rather than the price Silks' paid with his fundamental self-deception; whatever power the film might have contained gets lost in this romantic shuffle. 

Stain mourns an improbable love affair, not the tragedy of the lives that people it--that's why the film fails to convey the impact its makers sought and the reception they undoubtedly wanted--desired perhaps, but on the evidence, not deserved.



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