Human Stain, The (2003): Robert Benton’s Version of Philip Roth, Starring Anthony Hopkins and Nicole Kidman (Miscast)

In the Venice Film Festival to promote the world premiere of The Human Stain, director Robert Benton proudly announced to the press how lucky he felt to get an illustrious cast headed by Anthony Hopkins and Nicole Kidman.

Yet both performers are vastly miscast, and largely responsible for the artistic and commercial failure of a film that also suffers from an unsatisfying adaptation pf Philip Roth‘s poignant novel and Benton’s pedestrian direction.

Can you imagine Kidman, an actress known for her grace and elegance, as a down-and-out working class woman? One of the most versatile actors of his generation, Hopkins claims to his credit portrayals of Nixon, Hitler, Yitzhak Rabin, and Hannibal Lecter, among others. But despite penchant for accents and impersonations, the skillful actor is not convincing as Coleman Silk, the classic lit professor. It doesnt help that, as played by Gary Sinise, the films third character, Nathan Zuckerman, Philip Roths alter ego, is also miscast.

Its too bad for “The Human Stain” deals with such hot-button issues as racism (both manifest and latent), academic freedom, language as an ideological weapon, political correctness, sexual and physical abuse, family loss, all issues that are seldom dealt with by mainstream Hollywood. As a result, the potentially controversial film never generated any debate or discussion, not even within academia, which is a battleground these days for cases of racism, sexual harassment, discrimination, and hate-crimes.

It took a long time for Nicholas Mayer to get a workable screenplay out of Roths prize-winning novel, which was considered unfilmable. For one thing, the tale is based on a lie, the self-delusion of a man whos black but all his life pretended to be white. How do you deal with such a mystery in visual terms In the book, the revelation of Coleman Silks racial identity is a major twist that comes at the end, but the film discloses the secret in the second reel, which means that dramatically it has nowhere to go.

An unintentional racial slur in a classroom, addressed toward students that just happened to be black, costs tenured professor Silk his academic job. Noticing the absence of two pupils, Silk remarks rather casually and cynically, Do they really exist, or are they spooks Failing to realize the politically charged meanings of the word spook. Confident in his innocence, Silk makes another mistake by vainly defending himself before an academic board that is not only politically correct but includes members who hold personal grudges against him.

The different strands of the dense saga never congeal into a coherent whole. The main story is set in the summer of 1998, when Clintons sex scandals dominate the news. Roths novel begins with the satirical observation of the Presidents sex with Monica Lewinskythe obsession of the entire country with the definition of sexual intercourse. (Is blow job a real sex) Against that setting, we meet the widower Silk, an older man who discovers the magical powers of Viagra that revitalizes his life.

The film’s most convincing parts depict Silks youth, told in flashback and played by an excellent young performer, Wentworth Miller. After the sudden death of his father, the light-skinned Silk refuses to attend an all- black college, instead enlisting in the Navy as a white man. When his girlfriend Steena (Jacinda Barrett) discovers his real roots, during a visit to his mom (Anna Deveare Smith), she is so shocked and offended by his lie that she leaves him. Silk later marries another woman, Iris, but continues to deny his past and the existence of a family.

We are then introduced to Faunia Farley (Kidman), a truly tragic heroine who belongs to the same league as Sophie (of Sophies Choice), only shes more sluttish and earthy; she works as a cleaning woman at the post office and the local dairy. Faunia is tormented by her abusive husband (Ed Harris), a demented Vietnam vet who still blames her for the death of their young children in an accident.

Upon meeting, Faunia seduces Slik and a secret affair follows. Unfortunately, theres no erotic charge to the sex scenes between Hopkins and Kidman, and not just because of their age difference (which is the point). At this phase of her career, asking Kidman to strip has become a clich. Most of her directors (all men of a certain age), beginning with Kubrick in Eyes Wide Shut, have depicted her naked or semi-naked in a voyeuristic way, as an object of desire.

Problem is, what was subtle and reflexive in the book has become explicit and overstated in the film. Bentons attempt at humor and lyricism are also ineffective, evident in the portrait of the two reclusive men, Coleman and Zuckerman (who’s urged to write a book about Coleman). In the hands of another director, the scene in which late one night, after drinking, Silk invites the clumsy Zuckerman for a dance, could have been marvelous.

Both literal and literate, “Human Stain” is not as refined or tasteful as the Merchant-Ivory adaptations of classic literature are, but it’s still too genteel and high-gloss for Roth’s much harsher and hitting source material.

Though as the younger Silk Miller gives a terrific performance, he doesn’t look or move as the mature Silk he evolves to.

“The Human Stain” never recovers from the too early revelation of its secret and incredulous casting. The dangerous thing about this picture’s failure (which barely grossed $6 million at the box-office) is that filmmakers like Benton would claim American audiences are not interested in intelligent, socially conscious movies. It will not occur to them that the fault is theirs, in both conception and execution of the their films.

Credits

Directed by Robert Benton
Screenplay by Nicholas Mayer, based on Philip Roths novel

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