Judge Lacey Worrell puts on her rubber gloves, gets out her scrubbing brush, and prepares to remove this Anthony Hopkins flick from the sofa cushions.
How far would you go to escape the past?
Spoiler alert: Guess what? There will be no spoiler alert for this review because I refuse to give anything away about The Human Stain's Big Twist. If that is what you're looking for, go dig up a back issue of Entertainment Weekly, the publication that ruins every twist in television and film for me, all because seeing the words "Spoiler Alert" make me want to read on even more, even though I know I shouldn't. Is there a 12-step program for people who ignore spoiler alerts and hate themselves afterward? If so, sign me up.
Facts of the Case
Coleman Silk (Anthony Hopkins, Red Dragon) is a highly respected classics professor at a small college in Massachusetts. Under his guidance the school, as well as its faculty, has garnered respect and prestige. Silk's carefully controlled campus world comes tumbling down one day, however, when he uses a word in class that has double meaning as either a benign description or a polarizing racial slur.
Silk is instantly castigated by his peers and is forced to resign. As he muddles through the disorientation that results, he strikes up two friendships, one with a reclusive writer (Gary Sinise, Forrest Gump), the other with a brassy custodian, Faunia (Nicole Kidman, Cold Mountain). Each is experiencing a different kind of pain, but Silk's is by far the most devastating and is based on a decision he made as a teenager that has affected the rest of his life.
Flashbacks reconstruct Silk's history, from his poor beginnings in New Jersey to his rise in stature as a respected professor. Of special interest is Silk's strained relationship with his father, the catalyst for Silk's decision to create a nelaboratelie without anticipating the devastating consequences it will bring down the road.
In the present day, Faunia is being stalked by her ex-husband, played by Ed Harris (Radio), which lends an ominous, suspenseful tone to the already somber life Silk is leading. But in his relationship with Faunia, Silk finds some moments of true happiness that appear to outweigh Harris's threatening presence. The ultimate resolution of the various plots is much like real life, giving a sense of too little, too late, but offering reluctant closure as well.
Given the subject matter, this film could easily have been three hours long instead of clocking in at under two. It is rare that I actually wish a film were longer, but in this case more length might have cut down on the choppy, awkward feel of the transitions and the suddenness of plot developments. The flaws in this film rest solely on the shoulders of the script, which meanders all over the place and is more interested in social criticism than a coherent story.
The immediate problem with the story is that the film ultimately becomes about Faunia's present problems instead of being about Silk's past. The latter would have been far more interesting. The conclusion of the film is a nice marriage of the two story lines, however, reinforcing the idea that personal pain and regret make us more alike than different. The ending is not so much a downer as it is a just resolution, and I guarantee that you will be thinking about it for days afterward.
The acting is superb, as if there would be any doubt given the headliners. Yes, Kidman is miscast, and yes, at times it is difficult to even buy Hopkins in his role. Yet the two of them manage, despite a weak script, to create a lyrical discourse through glances, touches, and tone. Sinise's voiceover is unnecessary and even distracting at times, but his character's presence as Silk's sounding board is welcome. As the young Silk, actor Wentworth Miller (Underworld) is a revelation. It is especially intriguing how he manages to match Hopkins's gestures and tone of voice in order to give believability to the dual role, despite the fact that the two actors look nothing alike. The Real World's Jacinda Barrett, only an aspiring actress when she appeared on the show many years ago, has a substantial role as young Coleman Silk's love interest. L.A. Law fans will also recognize actress Mimi Kuzyk as the professor leading the charge against Silk; Kuzyk guest-starred several times in the early episodes of L.A. Law.
Hopkins is one of those rare actors whose mere presence give a film a touch of gentility and class. He has been criticized in the past for taking roles in potential blockbusters rather than sticking to films that portray English gentry, but I contend that this does not tarnish his mastery of the craft he knows so well. Take, for instance, a silly line in The Human Stain that refers to Viagra. This man pronounces the word in such a way that it sounds like a gorgeous melody played by the London Symphony, not the pop-culture joke Viagra has actually become. Now who else could pull that off?
Also of note is the gorgeous cinematography. There are many metaphors used in this film—most notably a cold, unforgiving winter—but even sets as mundane as a bedroom or the interior of a car are beautifully lit and filmed. I could have done without the Clinton-Lewinsky scandal's having been threaded throughout the story, however; the beautiful camera work gives a lush sense of time and place all on its own.
Skip the behind-the-scenes documentary. The self-congratulatory tone of these little DVD vignettes is becoming increasingly annoying. Of course the actors and director of this particular film aren't given much to talk about, since they cannot spoil the Big Secret, so they resort to a great deal of backslapping and talking about how honored they all are to be working with each other. I much prefer documentaries of the type featured on the DVD release of the anniversary edition of The Color Purple, which went back and interviewed the cast many years later; all involved were so humble and appreciative as they looked back, not knowing as they made the film what a sensation it would create. In the case of The Human Stain it is obvious that everyone thought the film was going to be much bigger than it ultimately was. Upon its release it met mostly poor reviews and equally poor box office—not that this was necessarily deserved, because the film is a worthy effort, even if it does not completely work.
The Human Stain is uneven, unsettling, even depressing, but the stellar acting makes it worth your time. If you've already seen Hopkins's masterpieces Remains of the Day, The Silence of the Lambs, and Shadowlands and wish to see him in a stronger film, try 84 Charing Cross Road, a small, spare, expertly acted and executed film in which Hopkins plays a middle-class London bookseller who develops a long-distance friendship with a feisty New Yorker. And I do hope this marks the end of Kidman's penchant for playing Plain Jane types…she was terrific as the backstabbing news princess in To Die For.
Judgment awarded to Hopkins for his innate ability to rescue a flawed film and for his willingness to continue to take career risks, despite the fact that audiences would be happy to see him play English butlers or noblemen for the rest of his life. He can whisper the word "Viagra" to me anytime.
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