HUMAN STAIN, THE
A New England classics professor, Coleman Silk (Anthony Hopkins), harbours a secret kept hidden for over fifty years from his wife, his children and newly found close friend, writer Nathan Zuckerman (Gary Sinise). After he’s forced to resign from his College on an unjust charge of racist remarks, Silk’s life is dramatically changed. He soon begins an affair with a young, troubled janitor, Faunia (Nicole Kidman), who promises to invigorate it, despite the threat of her dangerous, estranged husband Lester (Ed Harris). When the collision of these lives ends in tragedy, Zuckerman sets out to reconstruct the unknown biography of this eminent, upright man, esteemed as an educator for nearly all his life, and to understand how this ingeniously contrived life came unravelled.
Review by Louise Keller:
This intriguing adaptation of a story about secrets and racism misses its mark due to problematic casting and a script that confuses by its structure. The collaboration of Academy Award winning director Robert Benton (Kramer vs Kramer) and screenwriter Nicholas Meyer (The Seven-Per-Cent Solution, Sommersby) fails to ignite the kind of rewards anticipated, despite splendid performances from Anthony Hopkins and Nicole Kidman. Visually and on a sensual level, however, there are many rewards, with Jean-Yves Escoffier’s beautiful cinematography and Rachel Portman’s emotionally dense score. (The film is dedicated to Escoffier, who died in April 2003.)
At first appearances, Hopkins’ melancholy college professor and Kidman’s tragic Faunia have little in common, but by the end of the film, not only have they shared their secrets with each other, but we recognise that they are both lost characters, whose emotions have been buried and discarded. Their relationship is not based on passion, but represents different things to each of them. To Professor Silk, here is an intimacy that triggers memories from his past, whereas for the girl who never stays the night, she is looking for stability and a refined calmness that she has not encountered before. Their meetings are liaisons: how could we forget the scene when the haunting refrains of ‘Cry Me A River’ plays as Faunia dances her bewitchingly seductive naked dance.
But it’s the miscasting of Wentworth Miller in his debut feature role as the young Coleman Silk, that casts aspersions on the credibility of the story. Not only is he physically so different from Hopkins, but his American accent bears absolutely no resemblance to Hopkins’ distinctive English accent, so as the story jumps back and forth between the late 90s to the 40s, it takes a great leap of faith to embrace both actors as the same character. We are sympathetic to Miller’s conflicted young man who turns his back on his past, and in some ways it is easier to get involved in the younger man’s story which comes to a startling climax as he takes his girl home to meet his Mom.
Each of the characters has a problem, and we connect with all of them. Gary Sinise is solid as the empathetic writer who learns to laugh again, and Ed Harris is frighteningly credible as the deranged, violent man from Faunia’s past. The Human Stain is a thought provoking film, throughout which we are constantly aware that secrets are consistently being revealed to the wrong person.
Review by Andrew L. Urban:
With the 1998 Monica Lewinsky tribulations of then President Clinton in the background, author Philip Roth stick pins into his favourite voodoo dolls of so called political correctness. Some of these pins are evident in the screenplay, for which I am grateful. I even wish for more of them. Like the wry comment about people in general becoming more stupid and yet more opinionated. Reminds me of a psychologist’s article in The Australian, noting how as a rule, the less informed tend to be more strident about their complaints and prejudices.
The dramatic origins of one aspect of Silk’s story are exactly from such a place: confronted by serial absenteeism in his classics class, he wonders if the missing students are real, or are they spooks? As in ghosts, of course. But in the hysterical climate of colour blind correctness, the College board takes the stupid option and questions his use of the word, preferring to castigate their most distinguished professor for perceived racism. The absent students happened to be black, which of course he couldn’t know.
As the film moves back and forth in time, the secret that Silk has harboured is revealed, and the irony of the charge of racism sinks home. But the more we learn about Coleman Silk in his youth, the more we are disorientated by Anthony Hopkins as the present day character. Physical discrepancies aside, Wentworth Miller, the young American actor and the elder British statesman of the screen are irreconcilable in nature. As good as Hopkins is at creating character, he’s not culturally credible as the Silk whose origins and journey we get to know. They are both miscast, as are Nicole Kidman as the troubled Faunia, and Ed Harris as her equally troubled husband.
These crucial errors of casting judgement undermine what is a difficult, problematic film. There are several effective moments (like when Hopkins’ Silk is moved to dance and drags Sinese’s Zuckerman into his arms), but occasional editing flaws (eg: Silk finds Faunia with her car broken down up the road, when he appears to have just left her seconds before; how does Lester get to know about Faunia and Coleman – we can only speculate) and the consistently dysfunctional choice of cast mitigate against a thoroughly enjoyable, satisfying experience.
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HUMAN STAIN, THE (MA)
Couleur du mensonge, La (2003) (France) ; Menschliche Makel, Der (2003) (Germany
CAST: Anthony Hopkins, Nicole Kidman, Ed Harris, Gary Sinise, Ron Canada, Anne Dudeck, John Finn, Jacinda Barrett, Wentworth Miller, Harry Lennix, Clark Glegg, Anna Deavere Smith
PRODUCER: Gary Lucchesi, Tom Rosenberg
DIRECTOR: Robert Benton
SCRIPT: Nicholas Meyer (novel by Philip Roth)
CINEMATOGRAPHER: Jean-Yves Escoffier
EDITOR: Christopher Tellefsen
MUSIC: Rachel Portman
PRODUCTION DESIGN: David Gropman
RUNNING TIME: 106 minutes
AUSTRALIAN DISTRIBUTOR: BVI
AUSTRALIAN RELEASE: March 4, 2004