HBO // 2012 // 155 Minutes // Not Rated
Reviewed by Judge Gordon Sullivan // April 16th, 2013
We were good in war. And when there was no war, we made our own.
One of the many tragedies surrounding Ernest Hemingway's life is the terrible mythic image of himself he built up. The hard-living, harder-drinking image of a man's man jet-setting around the world writing stories and novels that helped define a generation was mostly bluster. Sure he did a lot of the things he wrote about, but he was a much more complex character than his media profile made him out to be. Part of the problem is that Hemingway himself is such a hard figure to get a handle on. In fact, he's really only legible within the world he inhabited and the people he associated with. No doubt the most significant of these figures was Martha Gellhorn. Perhaps one of the few people who could claim to be Hemingway's equal (and the one who most easily showed up his macho nonsense) and peer both in hard living and writing. Though their relationship lasted less than a decade, their affair covered multiple continents and major conflicts both personal and global. They are in some ways the perfect subjects for a biopic, and the HBO original movie Hemingway & Gellhorn attempts to capture the historical and romantic grandeur of their passion.
Ernest Hemingway (Clive Owen, The Bourne Identity) was already the voice of a disaffected generation by 1936 when he walked into a Key West bar and met Martha Gellhorn (Nicole Kidman, The Hours). Gellhorn herself was already a respected journalist and world traveler. The pair seemed like a perfect match and set out on an affair (that eventually turned to marriage) which lasted almost a decade before imploding. Along the way we see their relationship against numerous backdrops, including several revolutions and World War II.
The main thing to enjoy about Hemingway & Gellhorn is the two central performances from Owen and Kidman. Owen is far from the first person I would think of to cast as Hemingway. Perhaps because he's British, he's always had a kind of bookish manliness about him that seems at odds with the outdoorsy masculinity of Hemingway, and yet the pairing works surprisingly well. Owen gets the broad strokes of Hemingway's personality in a near-cartoonish way, but Owen's own bookishness grounds the performance. Kidman as Gellhorn is an inspired choice. Though her performance is arguably as unsubtle as Owen's, it's more fun to see Kidman let go and really play an unapologetically strong character, especially one from the thirties and forties. Together the pair sell the passion and pain of a world-spanning romance between titanic personalities.
The film's structure also helps it a bit. Most people will come to the film aware that Hemingway killed himself in the sixties, but few will know anything about Gellhorn (who died from a drug overdose in 1998 when she no longer wanted to live with cancer). She often refused to talk about Hemingway, so structuring the film around an interview with her is an interesting choice, one that gives filmmaker Philip Kaufman (The Unbearable Lightness of Being) a chance to flex his cinematic muscles with the story.
The film is also aided by the Hemingway & Gellhorn (Blu-ray) release. The 1.78:1/1080p AVC-encoded transfer is top notch. The source is primarily digital, shot on an Arri Alexa by the same cameraman as Kaufman's Quills. The digital source is pristine, full of rich detail and spot-on colors that attempt to mimic a period feel. The non-digital moments come when the actors are inserted into archival footage and the digital trickery is pretty seamless. Overall this is a near-perfect transfer of a pristine source that will wow viewers with its clarity and vibrancy. The DTS-HD 5.1 surround track is equally impressive. The film's score won an Emmy and it's easy to see why with this lossless version careening through the speakers. It never overpowers the clear dialogue from the center, either. Surrounds get good use during the "action" scenes where Hemingway & Gellhorn find themselves in war zones.
Extras start with a commentary featuring Kaufman and legendary editor Walter Murch. It's occasionally a bit silent but the pair get out most of the salient info on the production and historical background of the picture. A short (five minute) featurette looks at the digital effects that created a thirties and forties feeling for the film on a relatively low budget, and a second featurette includes interviews with the principals talking about their involvement with the project. Perhaps the only thing missing is more info on the miraculous makeup transformation that Kidman undergoes to play the aged Gellhorn.
Hemingway & Gellhorn is a bit of a cartoon. It tries to do too much -- taking two outsized characters and covering almost a decade of their stuffed-to-the-gills life -- and ends up doing too little. Ernest Hemingway, and especially Martha Gellhorn, deserves better. Each of their lives deserves a miniseries or two, especially the years between '36 and '46. Fans of historical accuracy will be disappointed as well; to heighten the all-consuming nature of their affair the film makes the claim that Hemingway was a broken man after his split with Gellhorn. While it's true that his later years were not his best, he was hardly unproductive for the next decade and a half until he killed himself. Perhaps the biggest strike against the film, though, is that it takes the singular relationship of these two titans of the twentieth century and reduces it to yet another consuming romance, the kind of romance that both writers strove to avoid in their own works.
Hemingway & Gellhorn isn't a bad movie. It's got a pair of interesting performances from its two leads and it looks absolutely fantastic on Blu-ray. That success is tempered by a film that's a bit too long and doesn't really do enough to highlight just how unique its central couple really is. Viewers who aren't sticklers for historical accuracy and who can look past the cartoonish nature of the characterization will find a decent little romp through a decade of world history with pretty actors. Worth at least a rental for fans of those involved, and fans can buy with confidence due to the excellent audiovisual presentation and extras.
Cartoonish, but not guilty.
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Scales of Justice
* 1.78:1 Non-Anamorphic (1080p)
* DTS HD 5.1 Master Audio (English)
* DTS 5.1 Surround (French)
* Dolby Digital 2.0 Stereo (Spanish)
* English (SDH)
Running Time: 155 Minutes
Release Year: 2012
MPAA Rating: Not Rated
* DVD Copy