The Human Stain

November, 2003, Drama

Directed by:Robert Benton

Starring:Anthony Hopkins and Nicole Kidman

Philip Roth is a gifted writer of fiction. Robert Benton's status as a superb director is richly deserved. Nicholas Meyer has earned a solid reputation as a writer/adaptor of screenplays. Anthony Hopkins, Nicole Kidman, Ed Harris and Gary Seneise are actors with remarkable ability in their craft. So why isn't this movie better? That, my dear Watson, is the mystery…

Roth's novel explores whether America's supposed class and color blindness is as universal as it claims to be, and what happens when the reality of our culture bumps up against the frequently hypocritical expressions of it. Anthony Hopkins plays Coleman Silk, a brilliant Jewish classics professor at a small New England liberal arts college. His status in academia gets promptly trashed however, courtesy of a deliberately misinterpreted remark he makes while lecturing; that single slip ousts him from the school his contributions helped bring to prominence. His disgrace triggers his wife's heart attack, leaving Silk lonely and embittered after her subsequent death. To ease his pain and reclaim his lost reputation, he seeks out Nathan Zuckerman, (Gary Seneise) a reclusive writer, to help author a book that will defend Silk's reputation and attack those responsible for his downfall. Zuckerman, (a familiar figure in Roth's fiction) declines the offer but in the course of doing so, becomes Silk's close friend and confidant. 

Silk appears headed for a comfortable if lonely professional twilight when a chance encounter with Fauina Farely, (Nichole Kidman) a sullen but erotically-charged working class woman throws his well-mannered if disgraced existence into a sexual convulsion he's unwilling and unable to resist. Yet Silk's affair with a divorcee, (who swears like a stevedore and works a series of part-time jobs to make ends meet) offends his former colleagues even more than his supposedly racist slip of the tongue. His isolation from the comfortable world from which he's been expelled grows even more acute when Fauina's deranged ex-husband Lester (Ed Harris) threatens the lovers. He's beaten Fauina repeatedly in the past, and blames her for a secret she adamantly refuses to divulge to Silk. But he's hiding an even larger truth from her, which the director unfolds in a series of shrewdly situated flashbacks, demonstrating that Silk is not what his carefully constructed persona appears to be.

Social conventions and the hypocrisy with which society wields them to cause great, unnecessary pain thus get a measured and careful examination here, without bridging the distance between the characters and the audience; these aren't real people, just skilled artists telling a story which lacks the immediacy that would cause us to viscerally identity with them. The plot's twists and turns are genuinely interesting, and presented with all the professionalism one would expect from this assemblage of talent--so why doesn't it work? 

Casting may be the biggest factor; the previous work of both leads makes their credibility here as these characters very difficult to accept, and Hopkins exacerbates that problem by playing Silk as though the carefully kept secret about his life hasn't had much impact on the man he's become; he beautifully captures the vulnerability of a 60-ish man besotted with a woman nearly half his age, but the secret he's nursing, (which the audience learns rather early on in the story) doesn't appear to affect the man Hopkins presents at this climatic point in his life. Kidman's Faunia radiates a hot-house carnality rather than the sweaty sexuality her lower-class background's supposed to reveal; while genuinely erotic, she's closer in appearance to Diane Lane's adulteress in Unfaithful than the slatternly creature this script calls for. Sinise has the most thankless job-that of playing an "Our Town" narrator, providing enough continuity to compress the book's plot into a two-hour drama and dolefully intoning the film's moral in the final reel.

Benton has long demonstrated the unique ability to warm audiences with movies featuring big-league stars in emotionally-charged plots without resorting to Capra-like smarminess; (Dustin Hoffman in Kramer vs. Kramer, Sally Field in Places In The Heart and Paul Newman in the under-appreciated Nobody's Fool) but he just can't pull the trigger on these characters. Like Twilight, his disappointing examination of Hollywood vanity and the moral corruption it can cause, Stain remains an exercise in which players work on a meticulously crafted stage, performing, rather than embodying the people Benton wants us to meet. His use of dance as a metaphor for disclosure and the skill with which he presents Silk's heedless affair with a disreputable yet carnally alluring tramp provide some upside to a production that, like last year's The Hours will probably garner more praise for its serious subject matter and careful professionalism than it really deserves.

The Verdict? If you choose to see this one, you won't be disappointed--but you won't be terribly moved by it either.  

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