The Human Stain (2003)

reviewed by
David N. Butterworth

A film review by David N. Butterworth
Copyright 2004 David N. Butterworth
**1/2 (out of ****)

Coleman Silk (Anthony Hopkins) is a respected classics professor at Athena College, a small New England institution of higher learning that, since becoming Dean of Faculty, the lauded educator has helped fashion into an establishment of academic excellence. During one of his classes, Silk makes the unfortunate error of referring to two of his students, ghost-like in their perpetual absenteeism, as "spooks" and is quickly hauled before the school's Administration charged with making a racially-charged epithet (his two missing charges--individuals whom Silk has never met nor set eyes on--happen to be African American).

Silk is outraged by this allegation--a powerful scene--and promptly resigns. Upon hearing the news his wife Iris (Phyllis Newman) is equally enraged and in her struggle to come to terms with the accusation suffers a fatal heart attack-- another emotionally charged scene.

Considering his former colleagues murderers, Silk approaches blocked novelist Nathan Zuckerman (Gary Sinise), who's living in an A-frame house by a lake, to document this travesty of justice but Zuckerman feels that Silk should write the book himself. Angry and alone, Silk hooks up with the school's illiterate cleaning lady, Faunia Farley (Nicole Kidman), forming an unlikely alliance that's threatened not only by Faunia's psychotic ex-husband (Ed Harris, in a volatile Vietnam veteran role downplayed in this screen adaptation) but by a dark and disturbing secret from his past that revisits the themes of prejudice, intolerance, and identity.

Hopkins offers up a tour de force performance as the troubled Silk in this mostly successful translation of Philip Roth's novel "The Human Stain" (Nicholas Meyer adapted the screenplay and Robert Benton directs). Witness the scene in which Farley first invites Silk in--Hopkins's eyes are a nervous fusion of nervousness, excitement, and fear.

Kidman, however, is puzzlingly miscast, never for once believable in her blue-collar role (although if I was Silk and janitors looked the way Farley looks I would certainly make zero attempt to keep my classroom in order).

The title "The Human Stain," by the way, is explained by Roth thusly: "It speaks to that which is imperfect in us as humans. It is simply that which creates the human mess." Unfortunately for Benton, a veteran director of such quality films as "Kramer vs. Kramer" and "Nobody's Fool," the blemish on his copybook is the incongruous casting of Kidman, which brings his otherwise creditable effort down a peg or two.

David N. Butterworth

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