Dir: Robert Benton. US. 2003. 104 mins.
Or The Human Blot, depending on your point of view. It's not that Miramax' early autumn Oscar rollout is a bad film: it's just that it doesn't quite work up the energy to be a good one. True, the pairing of Kidman and Hopkins is one of those once-in-a-lifetime astral collisions that will put bums on seats whatever the critics say. After all, millions of people watched Ali versus Foreman, even if they didn't like boxing. But there is an overriding tiredness in this adaptation of Philip Roth's critically and commercially successful novel about (among other things) how racial, social and sexual pressures can lead people to betray those closest to them. The Oscar race has begun; but nothing and nobody in this film looks like a shoe-in for an award, except perhaps newcomer Wentworth Miller, who puts in a more than creditable performance as Hopkins junior; and Jean Yves Escoffier's austere, autumnal cinematography. The fact that Escoffier died earlier this year (the film is dedicated to him) may also influence the 5,000 AMPAS members.
You can see why the producers optioned the book. It has a succession of big, dramatic, eminently frameable scenes. And there is a neat, cinematic reversal of our perception of the central character, Coleman Silk, who shades from victim to villain. But as producer Tom Rosenberg has admitted, a successful adaptation was always going to be an enormous challenge. If you strip it down to its bare bones, Roth's story sounds ridiculously melodramatic. The main characters, arranged in no particular order, are: a coloured boy growing up in East Orange, New Jersey, whose complexion is so pale that he decides to pass for white - not just white but Jewish white - rejecting his entire family in the process; a trailer trash strawberry blonde whose stepfather molested her, whose kids were killed in a fire and whose Vietnam vet ex-husband is a murderous psychopath; and a respected, 71-year-old university dean whose wife dies of shock when he resigns from his job after being accused of racism, and who then embarks on an affair with the aforementioned strawberry blonde. That's not all: two of those characters are actually the same person.
In the book, Roth tones down the schlock by channelling everything through the eyes of a solitary, world-weary, sexually impotent narrator, Nathan Zuckerman. Here, though, the camera mostly takes over the burden of narration. Which leaves the celluloid Zuckerman as a rather insipid character with his dramatic point leeched out of him - though Gary Sinise makes a decent enough stab at the role. That leaves the melodrama, some of which is good, old-fashioned, tearjerker stuff: particularly a key scene between the younger Coleman Silk and his mother, which is played with understated finesse by Wentworth Miller and Anna Deavere Smith (who is a prize-winning playwright in her spare time). But other scenes push the Big Acting button far too insistently: worst of the lot is the one where a red-eyed, recently sandpapered Nicole Kidman with that dazed expression of suffering she does so well (and believe me, I'm a fan) tells a caged crow: 'You and I, we're made for each other'.
Though she has some good moments, Kidman is never quite believable as washed-up trailer trash. And Hopkins' decision to play Coleman Silk very, very flat may function as an antidote to the melodrama; but his unplugged, Be Yourself approach too often looks like laziness - especially when we hear his Welsh accent peeping through the New England vowels. Another distraction is the lack of any real resemblance between Silk junior and Silk senior. Yes, there are some big issues here: escaping the past, escaping the present, Monica Lewinsky (the action takes place in the summer of 1999 when, as the narrative voice tells us, 'a whole nation was preoccupied by cocksucking'). And there are some stirring moments of drama. But they don't add up to a satisfying whole; and The Human Stain looks like it might come out in the wash a little too quickly.
Prod co: Lakeshore Entertainment and Miramax Films present a Lakeshore Entertainment/Stone Village production, in association with Cinerenta-Cineepsilon
Int'l sales: Miramax
Prods: Tom Rosenberg, Gary Lucchesi, Scott Steindorff
Scr: Nicholas Meyer
Cinematography: Jean Yves Escoffier
Prod des: David Gropman
Ed: Christopher Tellefsen
Music: Rachel Portman
Main cast: Anthony Hopkins, Nicole Kidman, Ed Harris, Gary Sinise, Wentworth Miller, Jacinda Barrett.