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The Human Stain

  • compiled by Jeffrey Overstreet Copyright Christianity Today International
  • 2003 1 Jan
The Human Stain
from Film Forum, 11/06/03

When Robert Benton decided to direct an adaptation of Phillip Roth's novel The Human Stain, he faced a challenge. The story is complicated, jumping forward and backward in time, giving us two characters suffering extreme—and extremely different—crises.

The story involves a classics professor named Coleman Silk (Anthony Hopkins) who, late in his career, loses his job for making a politically incorrect and inflammatory remark in class. As his career crumbles, tragedy strikes in other ways as well. Traumatized, he stumbles into an ill-advised affair with a much younger woman named Faunia (Nicole Kidman). Faunia has serious troubles of her own, and soon her angry, unstable, dangerous husband (Ed Harris) is chasing the two of them. As Silk narrates his strange and painful past to a novelist (Gary Sinise), he moves slowly past his tendency to seek solace in sex and academic accomplishment, and finds one last chance at true love, compassion, understanding, and … at long last … honesty about his identity.

You can feel the filmmakers and cast straining to portray such a complex story in two hours, especially as the narrative asks us to accept some rather implausible things. But, in my opinion, the film is a rewarding achievement, one of the year's most soul-searching dramas. The cinematography is excellent, but not so showy that it becomes a distraction. The script admirably distills many varied plotlines into heavy doses of intense and believable dialogue. And thanks to the powerful, complex, and intimate performances of Hopkins, Kidman, and Harris, doing some of the best work of their careers, we are reminded just how shallow and simple most Hollywood melodramas really are. In a time when movies aren't telling enough good stories, it's refreshing to see one that tries to encompass a bit too much.

I must include a caution, however. The story does involve two relationships in which hasty, foolish fornication is a factor. The intensity of these scenes and the nudity involved should give each viewer pause to consider whether the film is appropriate viewing. It is possible for an artist to deal with these themes maturely and appropriately, and it is equally possible for a viewer to allow such work to lead him or her into temptation. The Human Stain is one of those films that demands discernment. (A discussion between Christian film critics about the proper and improper use of nudity in film is available here.)

As almost any critic will admit, The Human Stain cannot be discussed without spoiling one of its central surprises. But fortunately, the surprise is not the point of the movie. I will not spoil it for you here, but if you read any of the linking reviews, you will probably stumble across it.

My full review is at Looking Closer.

Gerri Pare (Catholic News Service) says, "Meyer's screenplay is sometimes curiously flat. Nonetheless, stellar performances … won't allow viewer interest to flag. And, despite its erotic content, at its core it is a tale of compassion gradually transcending lust."

Michael Elliott (Movie Parables) is dissatisfied. "The Human Stain should serve as proof that not even the finest actors are capable of playing every role. In this film containing so many secrets and lies, the one glaring truth which should be obvious to all is that Anthony Hopkins has been badly miscast."

Judging the film more harshly, Movieguide says the movie has "a horrid worldview … a portrayal of the empty human heart, void of a savior. Christians will remember it as just another film about the emptiness of life without God."

J. Robert Parks (Phantom Tollbooth) calls it "a particularly repulsive version of Oscar bait. The movie … moves at a glacial pace. The gratuitous nudity on display … should make feminists everywhere red with anger. The movie largely wastes the talents of Sinise … Harris, and Kerry Washington. And the score … is bald manipulation at its worst."

Mainstream critics also debated whether or not Hopkins and Kidman were right for the roles. Andrew Sarris (The New York Observer) puts up an impassioned defense of the film, saying, "The movie is fully worthy of the book, and will reach many people who might not have enjoyed the delightful experience of gliding through Mr. Roth's trenchant and zestful prose on the human condition." Michael Wilmington (Chicago Tribune) says, "The Human Stain is superbly crafted in all departments. It's the sort of movie—intelligent, humane, well-acted and based on rich source material—that we don't get often enough and therefore sometimes don't appreciate enough."

But Anthony Lane (The New Yorker) describes it as "an unlikely love affair, performed by two actors so remorselessly skilled that, by the end, you can't see the love for the skill." And Jonathan Rosenbaum (Chicago Reader) writes, "Benton allows the cast … to shine, but I was left wondering why such a very literary construction as this needed to be made into a movie."