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The Human Stain

John Simkin

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I saw the Human Stain last night. Best movie I have seen for some time. It seems that Hollywood can still make intelligent movies. I don't remember it getting good reviews when it was released. Why did Nicole Kidman not win the academy award for best actress? Fantastic performance.

The review by Stephen A. Haines on the film at Amazon gets it about right:

This film grabs the viewer from the opening scene. Through a winter's bleak landscape, a car's easy progress along the dark road is enhanced by the sedate pace of the background music. Before the credits have stopped running, the car is rolling into the roadside stream, the occupants clearly lost. An oncoming vehicle has driven them off the road deliberately, then continues on. Why has such a murder occurred?

Coleman Sylk [Hopkins] a classics scholar, denies a student's charge of racism as "spectacularly false", yet resigns his college post in protest. He contacts Nathan Zuckerman [sinise] to commission him to write the story of his life - the son of "the only Jewish saloon keeper in East Orange". Zuckerman, a writer suffering "block" is reluctant to undertake the task, but as he learns more about Sylk, he becomes fascinated by the man. The unfolding story is far more of "An American Tragedy" than Theodore Dreiser could have ever envisioned.

Sylk, whose real story is far more convoluted than that of the "son of a Jewish saloon keeper", is an angry man. His outbursts aren't violent - that aspect of his life is clearly under tight control. But the events of his youth are reflected in his dealings with others in his later life. To explain this, Sylk's early life [Wentworth Miller] is portrayed as a succession of deceptions, from his struggle to follow his own desires against his father's wishes, to that father's own role in life. Coleman wanted to be boxer - he was good in the ring. But he follows a different path to become a classical scholar. The "first Jew to teach classical literature in America" - according to narrator Zuckerman.

The source of Coleman's ire becomes clear when he tells Zuckerman about his first love. While in university, he meets a young woman and invites her home to dinner. The result is an act in a long-term tragedy. A tragedy that has yet to be played out both in the film and in real life. Convoluting Coleman's already bizarre existence is his unexpected encounter with Faunia Farley [Nicole Kidman]. In what is demonstrably her best role, Kidman is a woman beset by tragic circumstances. Their liaison, which should be completely out of character for both, proves stable and enduring. A cynical farm woman struggling for survival, she should have little to offer the classics scholar. But Coleman's own struggles provide a hidden bond. The two become lovers, mutually reinforcing and restoring a positive approach to their lives.

It's easy for Hopkins to impart tension in a film role - he's done it often enough. But here, he displays a new version of that emotion. There is the visible manifestation of self-control. While he can release his rage when he's relating his story to Zuckerman, a whole new aspect appears when he's with Kidman. In turn, while she might simply be grateful for his attention, Kidman becomes enamoured of his qualities. She discovers his strengths and capacities, leading her to develop a sincere affection for this stranger. Together, the endure challenges and overcome them. All but the last one.

There are many roles in this film deserving applause. Anna Deveare Smith's depiction of Coleman's mother, Ed Harris as Faunia's ex-husband and, of course, Jacinda Barrett as Coleman's university-days lover stand out well under Benton's direction. Hopkins and Kidman, however, rightly dominate this production. Kidman, in particular, exhibits a capacity hardly promised in her other roles. This film is reminiscent of two of Sean Connery's in which two co-stars, Lorraine Bracco and Catherine Zeta-Jones seem to suddenly blossom out of previous mediocrity. Was there an unforeseen magic between Hopkins and Kidman, or did Benton provide a catalyst needed to bring out the best these two could provide? However the formula worked, the product is something outstanding.

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