Odd casting choices mar an otherwise beautiful Human Stain.
Thursday, November 27, 2003
Somewhat near the end of this adaptation of the 1998 Philip Roth novel, a woman named Faunia Farely (Nicole Kidman), who has suffered immeasurable loss, goes to visit a crow at the Audubon Society. The scene--one of huge importance in the novel--is badly truncated here, but director Robert Benton (Places in the Heart) does something clever with the camera. He puts it in the cage with the crow, so that it appears that Faunia is the one behind bars, not the crow. With this metaphor, Benton wordlessly distills one of the novel''s major themes, that of imprisonment: to ourselves and to others, to our basest human desires and to the most ruthless of society''s strictures.
The action is set during the Clinton impeachment trial and, a time when the grip of political correctness on the nation was nothing short of a stranglehold. A well-respected classics professor--the headstrong, 70-something, and Jewish Coleman Silk (Anthony Hopkins)--resigns in disgrace over charges of racism.
The ruined Coleman has only one confidant, a reclusive writer named Nathan Zuckerman (Gary Sinise), and it is to Nathan that Coleman confesses the affair he''s having with Faunia, who is some 40 years his junior. As the film explores the relationship between Faunia and Coleman, it also jogs back to the ''40s, to a devastating love affair of Coleman''s that changed the path his life took.
The Human Stain is built largely on secrets, and the one revealed in flashback is a whopper. Coleman actually hails from a light-skinned African-American family; stung from a failed relationship, in a pre-civil rights era of uncompromising racism, Coleman decides to "pass" for white.
Inevitably, the issue of casting crops up. First, the easier of the two head-scratchers: aristocratic Nicole Kidman as a beaten-up and beaten-down, chain-smoking cleaning lady? Actually, she''s not as cast-against-type as you''d think: Faunia is defined by the same edgy defensiveness at which Kidman excels. Her Faunia, the victim of sexual abuse at a young age, seems frozen in time, with the fidgety, bobble-headedness of a child ever on the verge of a panic attack.
Hopkins, however, plays more improbably. It''s already a mouthful to swallow a white actor playing an African-American playing a Jew, but all that and a Welsh accent, too? When silent and watchful, Hopkins can be deeply moving (as when he observes his lover dance for him), but once he opens his mouth, the thundering institution of Sir Anthony threatens to engulf the entire film.
The Human Stain--a "prestige picture" through and through--is beautifully shot and, overall, very well-acted (excepting Anna Deavere Smith''s disastrous turn as the black mother Coleman disowns). It nails many of the "issues" put forth by Roth''s novel, and a tip of the hat to screenwriter Nicholas Meyer, who has made a coherent picture from Roth''s labyrinthine plotting. Yet--and forgive the cliche--while Roth''s words veritably leap from the page, they don''t stick to the screen (even with whole passages lifted from the book).
Quite simply, the film lacks the novel''s rage: its murderous passions and the apoplectic prose that brings them to life. Benton''s adaptation is too elegant, too composed. For source material so steeped in tragedy, we deserve something messier.
The Human Stain [3 stars]
Directed by Robert Benton
Starring Anthony Hopkins, Nicole Kidman, Gary Sinise, Wentworth Miller, Jacinda Barrett, Anna Deavere Smith
(Rated R, 106 min.)