Dir. Robert Benton, 2003, UK/USA
Anthony Hopkins, Nicole Kidman, Ed Harris, Gary Sinise, Wentworth Miller
On paper The Human Stain has the makings of a masterpiece; a critically acclaimed novel by Pulitzer Prize winning author Philip Roth, Oscar winning actors Anthony Hopkins and Nicole Kidman, Oscar nominees Ed Harris and Gary Sinise, and multi Academy Award winning director Robert Benton. At the very least you will have an excellently crafted film. On balance that is all The Human Stain is, but it promises so much more. Through a constant shimmer of quality the heart of this film has somehow been misplaced.
The film opens on a desolate and snow-clad New England road. A sinister, gnarled pickup truck lies in wait as a lone estate car approaches, then pulls out and drives directly towards it forcing it to swerve and crash down an embankment onto a frozen lake. Cut to a lecture on Achilles by Professor Coleman Silk (Anthony Hopkins) at Athena College in New England. An innocuous remark about some absent students being spooks gives some colleagues the excuse to reprimand him for being racist and he resigns in disgust. When his wife finds out she has a stroke and dies. In Silk's eyes they have killed her. But all is not what it seems with Coleman Silk, he has a story to tell and makes a surprise call at reclusive writer Nathan Zuckerman (Gary Sinise). Silk and Zuckerman develop a warm friendship, tenderly portrayed by Hopkins and Sinise. But Silk's passion is soon reawakened by an, at first improbable, affair with the emotionally scarred Faunia Farley (Nicole Kidman) who comes complete with archetypal Vietnam Veteran psycho husband (Ed Harris) in tow. What lifts this story is the secret that Silk has been living with. He is a very light skinned African American who has been passing himself off as white for most of his adult life; an unlikely premise that is actually based on a historical phenomena called racial passing.
Silk is a complex character, and against all the odds, and with some cinematic licence, Hopkins manages to be convincing. In contrast, when Nicole Kidman first appears as Faunia Farley her acting is stunning, she has managed to reinvent herself once more, but unfortunately her accent soon wavers and the magic fades as the film goes on. Making his feature film debut and of mixed race himself, Wentworth Miller plays the younger Silk as the film revisits his early life in New Jersey. His portrayal is breathtaking and eclipses his award-winning peers. It helps that this part of Silk's life is the more interesting and life defining.
When it becomes clear that Faunia's psychotic husband drove the pickup truck in the opening, and she was with Silk in the crashing estate car, much of the tension is pulled out from under the unfolding drama. And the most interesting part of Silk's life remains untold; when the film leaves Miller as the young Silk, he has turned his back on his family and race, joined the Navy and is yet to study at Oxford and NYU. Instead The Human Stain focuses on his later years and although they are sincerely played with dramatic weight, clichés abound. Thanks mainly to the late Jean-Yves Escoffier's beautiful and seamless cinematography that mirrors the winter of Silk's life in the austere New England winter, this is an intelligent and excellently crafted film. But it is no more.