Tuesday 29 November 2022

Movie Review: The Human Stain (2003)

A drama about love and lies, The Human Stain initiates numerous narrative pathways and shortchanges them all.

In New England, literature professor Coleman Silk (Anthony Hopkins) retires from his distinguished college position after being falsely accused of using a racial slur. His wife Iris dies soon afterwards. Embittered, Coleman approaches author Nathan Zuckerman (Gary Sinise) to help write his story. He then starts an affair with Faunia (Nicole Kidman), an angry-at-life janitor. She is living in fear of her psychotic ex-husband Lester (Ed Harris), a psychologically damaged Vietnam War veteran.

Flashbacks to the 1940s reveal Coleman's secret. He comes from a Black family, but can pass as white. As a young man (Wentworth Miller) attending college he develops a romance with white classmate Steena Paulsson (Jacinda Barrett), but their relationship is compromised when she meets his mother. Coleman disavows his family and commits to living a lie pretending to be a white Jew. Now in the twilight of his life, the affair with Faunia rejuvenates his spirits.

The Human Stain appears to have no idea what topic to pursue. The disjointed Nicholas Meyer script, adapting a Philip Roth novel, is burdened with enough big ideas and juicy subplots to occupy several movies, and unsurprisingly, director Robert Benton never grabs hold of the material. The production quality is high and each individual social issue holds promise, but the whole is considerably less than the sum of the parts.

The competing themes are wedged into a 105 minute jumble. A career ended by political correctness run amok, a wife dying of a broken heart, a winter-spring romance that also spans the class divide, a secret life hiding true racial identity and resulting in a fractured family, an author dealing with writer's block, a lost romance of youth, and a violent ex-husband who wants to turn a drama into a thriller: every scene steers in a different direction and the movie spins in place.

Benton is not helped by the miscasting of both central characters. Hopkins and Kidman share no chemistry, and misery loving company is the only justification for their characters' romance. Neither Hopkins as an inherently Black man nor Kidman as a scrappy white trash woman convince, but of the two, Hopkins seems particularly lost. While Benton is working overtime to make racial origins a centrepiece, Hopkins appears clueless, his focus purely on the unexpected joy of finding a new love. 

Fundamentally lacking discipline, The Human Stain is overloaded and underdeveloped.

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