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The Human Stain is the story of Coleman Silk (Hopkins), a classics professor with a terrible secret that is about to shatter his life in a small New England town. When his affair with a young troubled janitor (Kidman) is uncovered, the secret Silk had harbored for over fifty years from his wife, his children and colleague, writer Nathan Zuckerman, fast explodes in a conflagration of devastating consequences. It is Zuckerman who stumbles upon Silk's secret and 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 unraveled. Written by
Not without its flaws, but overall a well-done, entertaining film
There is something great in that intense, rugged gaze of Sir Anthony Hopkins. Whether it's the deviously psychotic Hannibal Lecter, or the angrily conflicted Richard Nixon, he assimilates that curvaceous, weathered face into whatever character he inhabits. Sure, Hannibal Lecter could use retirement (who wouldn't forget 2000's dreadful Hannibal), but you gotta give credit where credit is due: Hopkins is an astounding, first-rate actor. He can either scare the hell out of you or move you to tears, and though he does neither in director Robert Benton's adaptation of Philip Roth's The Human Stain, it is still a good movie.
The film begins in the late '90's, right in the heat of the Clinton-Lewinsky debacle. Characters in the film talk about it, but it only serves as the springboard for the scandal that occurs in the film. One day in class, professor Coleman Silk (Hopkins) inquires into the habitual absence of two students. "Do they exist, or are they spooks?" he asks. Anyone with knowledge of racial slurs knows that that 'spook' is not only a synonym of 'ghost' but a pejorative term for african-americans. Well, guess what race the students happened to be? Accused of racism, Silk resigns from the college in a violent fury while clinging even deeper to a secret he's hidden for decades (which won't be revealed in this review, even if evey other critic on earth has done so).
We find Silk several month later as he begins a lasting friendship with writer Nathan Zuckerman (Sinise). As the two learn more and more about each other, Silk tells that he's begun an affair witha woman half his age - the rugged, chain-smoking Faunia Farely (Kidman). The movie dives deeper into the secret of Silk's past while his relationship with Faunia deepens past their initial sexual attraction, and Faunia's psychotic, shell-shocked ex-husband, Lester (Harris), eventually enters the picture. Soon, Silk's past, Faunia's tumultuous back story, and Lester's anger head on a dangerous collision course.
There is a huge amount of plot to tackle in Roth's novel and, to a lesser extent, in the film. Screenwriter Nicolas Meyer (Fatal Attraction) has bravely attempted to cram as much of the book into just under two hours of movie while also steadily developing the two prescient themes: race and class. The scandal at the college and the film's numerous flashbacks into Silk's past provide a fine exploration of the race issue, while Coleman and Faunia are obviously a metaphor for the clash of two very different tiers on the socio-economic ladder. Silk is polished, refined, and with expensive tastes. Faunia works part-time jobs as a janitor, a postal employee, and a farmhand. When Silk takes her to a posh restaurant to meet Zuckerman, she storms out in a jealous rage saying, "You can't f**k me without taking me to expensive restaurants." These broad themes, though, aren't even the whole of the film. Faunia's past is tragic, so much that she feels Silk's resignation pales in comparison to her past, and not until Silk's secret is revealed and it all comes together do their own personal tragedies learn to co-exist. To present past and present on top of all of the other plot strands that make their way into the film and have them make sense is quite a task, but The Human Stain seems to pull it off.
It makes sense of its dense plot, but the film as a whole is not without its flaws. A complete adaptation of Roth's novel would yield a 5-hour long movie, or simply be impossible. The movie clocks in at under two hours, and at times, it handles so much that it becomes somewhat vague (especially with the debacle at Silk's college - it is crucial to the film but it fast-tracks through in under ten minutes). There is a ton of plot to swallow in this movie, and at times it seems that it's watered down a bit too much. I would have liked to have seen more on Faunia's ex-husband, Lester, or writer Nathan Zuckerman, who narrates the film but is only used to his potential in the fim's final stretch. Yes, the movie adequately presents scenes from Silk's past to expose his secret, but some of the supporting characters are left dangling in the present. When the movie attempts to elaborate on Faunia's past, it also unfortunately comes across as borderline silly. This could be due to bad direction or shaky writing, but one of Kidman's scenes that finds her weeping about her dead children comes off as awkward, cold, and overdone. Aside from a few shaky scenes, the vagueness of the film's narrative is really saved by fantastic acting all-around.
Which brings me to my next point. Much has been made about the casting in the film, particularly because of how Silk's secret relates to how his 'younger me' should look. Yes, the actor that plays a 20something Silk really does look nothing like Hopkins, but great acting is often the savior of shaky casting, and it does the job here. The real gamble, though, is Kidman. 'Nicole Kidman' and 'dime-store trash' have never really been synonymous, and she must take on a facet of that term in this film. The fact that she's one of the three or four finest actresses of her generation allows her to pull it off surprisingly well. Faunia's ebullient sexuality does take Kidman into Eyes Wide Shut territory for a few moments, but that frank sexuality that Kidman can alternately harness and let loose manages to stay 'Faunia' and not 'Trashy Nicole Kidman doing Alice Harford.' The chemistry between Hopkins and Sinise is one of the pleasures of the film, so much that seeing them giddily dance around to "Cheek to Cheek" seems 'right' in its own way. Ed Harris is only on-screen for a few minutes, but he manages to shine, especially in a key scene with Sinise at the end. Kidman and Hopkins own a great deal of the film, but in a crucial turn of events, Sinise shows what a fine on-screen presence he's become and he brings the movie to a close that becomes surprisingly tender for a film with such heavy thematic material.
I really admired the fact that the movie did try to present so many parts of Roth's novel, and even though it tripped a few times, the overall effect is more than satisfying. There is a lot to get in, and the movie wastes no time. It doesn't ever really feel like it's rushing though, and that's what makes The Human Stain a true pleasure to watch. It deals with issues in society that carry a huge amount of weight with them but manages to stay 'normal' throughout. Now, this may be a flaw in its presentation, but the fact that the movie is simply a movie adds to its watchability. It doesn't strive for head-scratching artfulness or take bizarre leaps into the subconscious. The Human Stain simply presents a good yarn about what a deep secret from the past can do to the present. The movie isn't great by any means, but it's certainly quite good, and definitely worth the time and the money. It may not transfer Roth's novel with 100% perfection, but it certainly succeeds in the sense of almost never losing its momentum and also carrying dramatic importance. The Human Stain is no Mystic River, and it probably won't be remembered in the future, but by God, it's still a pretty good movie. GRADE: B+
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