“The Human Stain” is positively dripping with prestige. It’s based on a book by a major author, Philip Roth, that deals with significant issues, and it’s been adapted by a noted screenwriter. The director boasts a distinguished resume, and the leads are two of the most notable–and highly respected–actors of our time. The behind-the-camera crew is composed of accomplished professionals, including skilled cinematographer Jean Yves Escoffier, who died shortly after the completion of principal photography (the film is dedicated to his memory). The East Coast and Canadian settings are elegant. Even the score has been assigned to one of the most capable composers writing for film today, the estimable Rachel Portman.
The result is a film in which each sequence appears to have been carefully thought through and prepared, every line of dialogue sculpted, every pause and gesture considered and reconsidered. The compositions have a classical purity, the structure a symmetrical effect, the interplay of light and shade a level of precision rarely encountered. You’ll find few pictures this year that are so subtly wrought, and demonstrate such sensitivity and restraint in almost every department.
It seems unfair, then, that all the talent and expertise has resulted in a film that, while poised and beautifully crafted, is emotionally so detached and remote. “The Human Stain” is the story of two damaged people–a widowed classics professor (Anthony Hopkins) who’s wrongfully lost his position as the result of a false charge of racism, and a much-younger woman (Nicole Kidman) from much lower on the social scale tormented by the tragedy of her former marriage–who find a kind of redemption in a most unlikely love affair. Their possibility of happiness, however, is threatened from both sides: on the one hand, his former colleagues titter over his indiscretion with a person who’s so far beneath him, while on the other her former husband (Ed Harris), a mentally disturbed veteran, wants to deny her a new life. The focus is on Hopkins’ character, Cameron Silk, whose past–including a personal secret it would be unfair to disclose (though some will find it, as portrayed here, distinctly implausible–more “M. Butterfly” than “The Crying Game”)–is gradually revealed through periodic flashbacks featuring his younger self (Wentworth Miller); we learn about the nightmares haunting Kidman’s Faunia Farley, on the other hand, primarily through revelations made in the present, and her psyche isn’t as fully excavated as Silk’s.
The three stars certainly invest their roles with feeling and intensity. Hopkins is his usual commanding self, expressing both Silk’s arrogance and rage and his attitude of helplessness and solitude. It’s a pity that one can never believe that Wentworth, who neither looks nor sounds anything like him, is really the same person in an earlier guise. (Wentworth is a solid enough actor, though his range is limited beside Hopkins; he’s merely not a convincing youthful version of the Welsh star.) Kidman, meanwhile, takes a good many risks, playing not just seductive but lowbrow to considerable effect; her character, however, is never fully explored, and a few of her scenes are bizarrely unexplained (especially one in which she talks to a caged crow in a campus classroom, which comes out of nowhere and makes very little sense). Harris rouses himself from his disappointingly conventional turn in “The Hours” to give an eerily dangerous yet pathetic quality to Faunia’s ex. The supporting cast is generally strong, too–particularly Jacinda Barrett as the young Coleman’s fiancée and Anna Deavers Smith as his mother.
And then there’s Gary Sinise, who plays writer Nathan Zuckerman, Roth’s regular alter-ego and our surrogate as well; it’s largely through his eyes that we experience the story of Coleman and Faunia. Though Sinise is fine in the part, it’s Zuckerman’s very presence that lies at the heart of the film’s dramatic problem. The character serves to distance the material from us, turning it into something that’s glimpsed at a step removed rather than with the immediacy so powerful a story deserves. Perhaps it would have been better to have rethought the book in more cinematic terms, eliminating the writer in the process, especially since–as portrayed here–he’s such a cerebral, undemonstrative fellow.
But, of course, one has to deal with the film that Nicholas Meyer and Robert Benton have chosen to make, and in this form “The Human Stain” is a picture it’s easier to respect than to be genuinely moved by. It’s dignified, thoughtful and intelligent–but, for all the torment and simmering passion, not terribly affecting.