The Human Stain
It must have seemed to the Miramax brothers that Philip Roth's "The Human Stain" would make a wonderful film - a kind of puzzle box for intellectuals. But to the extent the book lives, and it is not that successful, it lives in the mind, not on a vivid, forty-foot screen. And so to make a film of it would have required the most exquisite possible casting. I don't mean names; this film would have done better had there been no names attached. The audience would have had no expectations and could have accepted the admittedly slim premise as exemplified by characters not known for other film work.
But to make the film sell, Miramax thought it necessary to use name actors, and it becomes impossible for an audience to see the story as Roth created it. We see Anthony Hopkins and Nicole Kidman - not Coleman Silk and Faunia Farley. The fact that they are amazing actors - Kidman's range continues to astound us with every new film; and Hopkins, though without Kidman's ability to use new voices, accents and mannerisms, can play his age with grace and integrity - only confirms that they are miscast. We applaud their efforts but wish for something more believable.
The film is set in the summer and winter of 1998 and 1999, the year of President Clinton's confession and his impeachment trial, and no doubt Roth and the filmmakers saw a resonance between Clinton's humiliation and what happens to Coleman Silk. Silk, the dean of faculty at Athena College, near retirement but still teaching his Western Literature course, is living a double lie. He's perceived to be Jewish but in fact is a very light-skinned African-American passing as white - a decision he made as an 18-year-old at his New Jersey draft board when he enlisted in the Navy in 1944. The film shows us this, and his family life as well, in extended flashbacks. (Anna Deavere Smith, in a powerful and understated performance, is his mother.) The decision has cost him his mother, brother and sister, but it gave him a Harvard Ph.D. and a loving (white) wife, and the position he now holds.
But - irony of ironies - he is undone when he describes two missing students as 'spooks,' not knowing (because they have never shown up for class) that they are black. He is ousted from the college and almost simultaneously widowed. Living alone he comes upon blocked writer Nathan Zuckerman (another piece of bad casting - Gary Sinise cannot play a New York Jewish novelist) who also lives alone, sulking in his cabin. At the same time he meets Faunia Farley, emotionally wounded 34-year-old janitor at the college, and his libido starts to rise. As would yours and mine if our janitor were Nicole Kidman at her most exquisitely, sinuously sexy. But Faunia comes with baggage of her own, including a murderous ex-husband (Ed Harris in a beautifully realized portrait of a chillingly insane man).
"The Human Stain" takes us through Coleman and Faunia's initial tentative but touching relationship that grows into a powerful love; and to the denouement that puts an end to it. It is a perhaps logical but unsatisfying ending that weakens whatever power the film might have had. The film is not helped by having young Coleman played by the British actor Wentworth Miller, who looks nothing at all like Anthony Hopkins. As the film flashes back and forward, the disconnect comes close to being laughable.
Nevertheless, because Hopkins and - particularly - Kidman are so good, so committed to giving us these two damaged but worthwhile people, we can forgive most, if not all, of the movie's sins. Director Robert Benton, always good with actors ("Kramer vs. Kramer," "Places in the Heart," "Billy Bathgate," "Nobody's Fool"), has helped Kidman give one of the great performances of her already distinguished career. I would gladly nominate her for an Oscar for this, rather than last year's "The Hours." And he's loosened Hopkins up to a point where one of the loveliest scenes in the film is where Coleman persuades Nathan to dance with him one night on the porch of his cabin. But Miramax, in thinking star power would draw audiences to the film, has made a sad mistake and only weakened its story.