The Human Stain

So slight, it barely leaves a mark...
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What a small world it sometimes seems. Here's Nicole Kidman again, barely a month after Cold Mountain, only three weeks before Dogville; she's almost as busy these days as Anthony Hopkins used to be. His presence once denoted cachet; now it's practically a sign of class when a Hollywood film is imaginative enough to cast someone else. Presumably the pairing of Hopkins and Kidman for The Human Stain was intended to lend further sheen to an already prestigious number, an adaptation of the Philip Roth novel that brilliantly encapsulated the sexual and racial discontents of fin de siècle America. In reality, their casting suggests lazy thinking, typical of the lackadaisical quality of Robert Benton's film.

If you don't already know the novel's premise, consider this a spoiler warning. Hopkins plays Coleman Silk, a respected classics professor at an American university, who one day asks a rhetorical question about two students who have never shown up in class: do they exist, or are they "spooks"? But the word, which he innocently uses to mean "phantoms", also has racial connotations, and Silk is brought before a tribunal on charges of offending his black students. The twist is that Silk himself is black, but since his youth has managed to pass, by way of a desperate survival tactic, as white - more precisely, as Jewish.

After his wife's death, Silk starts an affair with Faunia (Kidman), a young office cleaner and part-time milkmaid with traumas of her own - a past involving step-parental abuse, the death of her children by fire, and a vengeful Vietnam-veteran husband, played by Ed Harris at his most clenched-jawed, glaring-eyed baleful. For a two-hour film, this is plenty intrigue to be going on with, which means that the movie never begins to convey Roth's complex argumentation. His novel is a protest against political correctness as censorship; a study of sexual tension between races, ages and economic classes; a study of hypocrisy and prurience in the Clinton era.

The film gives little sense of what the title means, but Roth's image variously refers to the perceived stain of blackness in white America, the stain of falseness in Silk's creative lie, the inevitable taint of human imperfection, and the literal stain left on Monica Lewinsky's dress in 1998's "summer of sanctimony ... the brief interlude when the nation was preoccupied with cock-sucking." This phrase comes at the start of the film, although the Lewinsky theme is dropped quickly, making you wonder why Benton retained it at all.

Roth, writing in the wake of events, produced a headline-sensitive response to the state of America at a precise cultural moment. The film, however, feels like - and explicitly signals itself as - a historical evocation of a recent, but bygone moment "before terrorism".

Even political correctness is sidelined as an issue, as if it were a phenomenon of a more benignly neurotic age, and the film shows a distinct lack of nerve by effectively writing out Roth's most contentious character, the female academic who is Silk's nemesis (Benton's interest is limited to making her vaguely resemble Camille Paglia). But in any case, this is not a political film but an erotic romance with a bit of political underpinning.

Robert Benton might have seemed a good candidate to direct this, given his skill at telling stories about older characters (his last film Twilight, with Paul Newman, was a suggestive essay on mortality and LA noir). But this thoughtful veteran has pulled off a dud. One prime drawback is Nicholas Meyer's script which, while trying to honour Roth's gradual onion-peeling of the Silk enigma, staggers shapelessly between past and present. The novel's narrator Zuckerman - Roth's alter ego - is demoted to a bemused buddy figure, played by a tamely personable Gary Sinise. And there are infelicities that make you want to scream. We get not one but two characters dying of heart attacks immediately after dramatic confrontations; and when Faunia produces a small box and says, "This is what's left of my kids," you may feel, like Oscar Wilde about the death of Little Nell, that it takes a hard heart not to laugh.

Kidman is misplaced in a part that was intractable to begin with - the fantasy of a woman with a complicated psyche and an uncomplicated libido. Here we never quite understand why Faunia gets involved with the elderly Silk, but apparently she's just the kind of nutty sexpot who would: a one-dimensional trashy temptress, languidly chewing gum, wearing her top off the shoulder to reveal a snake tattoo, and speaking in a continuous gasp of breathy sultriness, when she's not throwing impetuous strops. This is Kidman's thinnest characterisation yet, never sillier than when trudging through a cowshed in wellies and micro-mini like an aspiring centrespread in Farmgirls Monthly.

Hopkins comes off even worse. A big deal is made of Silk having lived in England, to justify his sounding exactly like Anthony Hopkins. Never mind that we can't believe Silk is black, or posing as Jewish (the word "chutzpah" would sound less misplaced in Sean Connery's mouth), we can't even credit him as American. Hopkins is good when showing little glimmers of tender delight towards Faunia, but generally he conforms to John Sessions' Stella Street impression of him talking very quietly and then VERY LOUDLY to startle people. His delivery suggests a total insensitivity to Coleman's agonies: describing his wife's death ("Massive embolism - pow!") like a blustering producer pitching a spectacular special effect.

The film's saving grace is the plausible casting of Wentworth Miller, a young mixed-race actor, elegantly reserved as Hopkins' literately seductive 1940s self. The scene where young Coleman, a budding boxer, punches the lights out of a black opponent, thereby punishing his own denied self, is the one moment here that has the ring of dramatic truth. Towards the end, one character expresses dismay at American culture's dumbing-down, but a movie so wrapped up in its own high-mindedness and stifling good taste inevitably ends up dumb in another sense: it says precisely nothing.