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The Human Stain

movie reviewmovie reviewmovie review out of 4 Movie Review: The Human Stain

Starring: Anthony Hopkins, Nicole Kidman
Director: Robert Benton
Rated: R
RunTime: 106 Minutes
Release Date: October 2003
Genre: Drama

*Also starring: Ed Harris, Gary Sinise, Ron Canada, John Cenatiempo, Anne Dudek, John Finn, Charles Gray, Mimi Kuzyk, Kerry Washington

Review by Harvey Karten
3½ stars out of 4

As one character in three-time Academy Award-winning director Robert Benton's film states, sex is responsible for getting people into a heap of trouble. If you don't know that yet, you haven't seen or read "Agamemnon," "Medea," "The Odyssey," "Macbeth," "Hamlet," you-name-it. In fact you probably don't get out that much. From the ancient Greeks to present-day America, sex is not only the cause of much of humankind's woes but is, along with violence, what literature, theater and movies are all about. "The Human Stain," based on the novel by the great Philip Roth, is not about what showed up on Monica's blue dress (see the first sentence above) but about the imprint that people leave on the world. A generic title, in just 107 minutes "The Human Stain" covers themes like sex, politics, race, class and morality, all neatly compressed by scripter Nicholas Meyer (who fortuitously did away with some of the book's subplots), and does this in a serious, engaging way while giving Nicole Kidman the sexually hottest role of her career to date.

Subtly evoking themes from Greek tragedies, Benton opens on the violent death of his two major characters, both flawed human beings, noting in a matter-of-fact way that the principal, Coleman Silk (Anthony Hopkins) teaches Classics at Athena College (actually filmed at Williams College in Massachusetts). After 35 years' work there, which by force of personality he invigorated from a backwater school to a prestigious institution, he is called on the carpet on the specious charge of violating political correctness, resigns in disgust, links up with a cleaning woman half his age, Faunia (Nicole Kidman), and in the midst of a hot affair tells his story to author Nathan Zuckerman (Gary Sinise), who is living in seclusion in a remote cabin. Just one important fact is left out: that though he appears lily-white and speaks with a Welsh accent, he is in fact an African-American who had decided early on to pass for Caucasian, given the reality of segregation and limited opportunities for black men and women during the forties and fifties.

Nicole Kidman presents Faunia as a product of her class, part of a world that Coleman could never fully enter in much the way that he would fail to feel at ease with his own identity as a black man. We in the audience could feel his embarrassment in trying to change her way of life. Taking her to a concert featuring a Schubert quintet and whispering to her, "Isn't it beautiful"? he's met by a vague smile. At a tony restaurant, the type that Faunia would have seen only as a cleaning woman, he makes her feel similarly uncomfortable. Introducing her without advance warning to his author friend, Nathan, he renders her so ill at ease that she bolts before the anticipated dinner can be served.

Two major themes are explored here. One is Coleman's life as a lie, as a man who refuses to identify with his race, exasperating his father, who wants Coleman to go to Howard University (a primarily black college), and his older brother who warns him to stay away from the family. The other, the unusual love between a now-retired professor in his mid-sixties and a 34-year-old chain-smoking, gum-chewing woman considerably beneath him in social class. The young Coleman is well-played in a debut performance by Wentworth Miller who refuses his father's order to retire from boxing in order to preserve his hands as a future doctor. Cinematographer Jean-Yves Escoffier (who died six months before the opening of the film) takes us into the boxing ring, dramatizing Coleman's hatred toward his own race, which leads him to pummel a black boxer in the first round against the orders by his manager to give the audience at least a four-round show.

Coleman is a tragic figure, flawed by his unwillingness to follow his family's perfectly rational advice to use his brain, express pride in his identity and become a physician and, by refusing his lawyer's suggestion to stay away from a woman who comes from a different world, Coleman comes into conflict with Faunia's ex-husband, Lester (Ed Harris), a man who is shell-shocked from his Vietnam experience and who in one instance beat his wife into a coma. We can understand Faunia's desire to be cared for by a gentle man, one who is not trailer trash, though we never quite know why she falls in love with a gentleman three decades older than she.

The plot seamlessly meanders from 1998 to the early 1950's and back several times. Photographed in Massachusetts, Quebec and just outside Montreal, "The Human Stain" evokes a credible and absorbing ambience while dramatically illustrating novelist Philip Roth's antipathy for political correctness and racial dishonesty.

Copyright 2003 Harvey Karten

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