Right from The Human Stain’s outset I was put off. How can you take a film seriously when it opens with long slow panning shots of icy branches and a car travelling along snow-clad roads? Is this not one of the most clichéd images in film? However, most of the film takes place indoors, in a series of intimate one on ones, as classics professor Dr Coleman Silk (Anthony Hopkins) comes to grips with unfairly losing his job and his wife suddenly dying as a result. Some of these scenes are great, such as when Silk and his novelist friend (Gary Sinese) waltz around the latter’s cabin. On the other hand, a bedroom scene in which Faunia (Nicole Kidman) – the woman he has a scandalous affair with, philosophises ‘we are just a man and a woman… alone… in a room… right here… right now’, is terrible.
Nicole Kidman, no matter how hard she tries, cannot credibly play a janitor/farm hand – it just doesn’t fit her image. I found Faunia, a once rich little princess who has suffered three of life’s biggest blows, a gruelling stereotype. Nicole is as cold and as haughty as usual which equals no sexual chemistry with Silk, and her ‘emotional’ scenes make you wonder if this is indeed the same actress who was so brilliant in Dogville. Conversely, Ed Harris is great as the psychotic Vietnam War vet/ex-husband of Faunia, Lester; the intimidating revving of his all-American truck, his depersonalised presence sending shivers down my spine. A spunky newcomer Wentworth Miller plays the younger Silk – the only fault in his performance being the absence of any physical resemblance to his older self. And last but certainly not least, is Anthony Hopkins, delivering his usual high standard of performance; Shakespearian in scale, intense and eloquent.
The superficiality of film does not lend itself well to the complex and multilayered nature of the Phillip Roth novel on which the film is based. Also the pace and editing were often painstakingly labourious. The director bit off a chunk too big to chew, and even the fine performances failed to wash it down. The pointed references to Greek tragedy deprived the film of subtlety – it might have been quite nice for us to figure out for ourselves that Coleman is a tragic hero. Two of the clangers are delivered by Silk’s smarmy lawyer who says ‘give up the girl Achilles’ and then calls Silk ‘Achilles on Viagra’. In the end he doesn’t even take a leaf out of Achilles’ book, and meet his doom.