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Culture Reviews
The Human Stain
35mm 
America Cinema 

By Robert Lees

The Human Stain is the latest novel to be given the Hollywood treatment. Phillip Roth’s controversial novel is certainly difficult to adapt to the screen but it is debatable whether director, Robert Benton, could have made a worse job.

It seems as if the whole approach to the film is to throw in a few big stars (Nicole Kidman and Anthony Hopkins), add a few contentious issues, a liberal sprinkling of sex and then hope for the best.

The film is set in Athena, a sleepy lakeside town on America’s East coast. Hopkins plays Cameron Silk, a renowned College professor who is fired from his job after making apparent racist remarks. His wife dies suddenly from the ensuing shock and sends his world into turmoil. Time moves on and he goes to see writer, Nathan Zuckerman, in an attempt to help him clear his name. Zuckerman declines to help Silk but the two still become good friends.
Silk’s chance encounter with the trashy Faunia Farley results in an unlikely love affair. Both their troubled pasts, not to mention, Farley’s psychotic ex-husband lead to predictably tragic results.

The success of the film relies on the audience dispending all disbelief. Its major weaknesses lie in its casting. Its two leads, both talented screen actors, just cannot be convincing in the roles they play. Hopkins should never have been chosen for the part of Silk. Not matter how skilled or experienced he is, he rather obviously will never pass for a black man, and Cameron Silk is supposed to be black. Albeit a very light skinned black man who overcomes the bigotry of pre-Luther King America by abandoning his race and taking on a Jewish identity.

Nicole Kidman’s character, Faunia Farley, fails to be convincing. She oscillates from unstable white trash slut who thinks only of her next one nightstand to dignified and deep spiritualist, capable of eloquent and moving speeches. The two sides of her character just are just too different to be believable.

The on-screen chemistry between the two leads is also problematic. It lacks any warmth or tension. But who could really blame Nicole Kidman? A beautiful young woman in her prime is asked shed her clothes with a rather unattractive, rather old and wrinkly pensioner and then look as though she is enjoying it. It would take a superhuman effort plus bundles of talent to pull this off. Only in a Hollywood film could two so different and mismatched characters meet on a roadside and within five minutes be in bed making passionate love.

The script and the direction are weak and fail to cover satisfactorily the major themes of Roth’s novel. The irony of the story, a black man accused of racism is highlighted through the use of flashback to Coleman Silk’s youth. The early Silk, played by Wentworth Miller, seems to have little in common with the elderly Silk and the connection between the too is difficult to see. The flashbacks are inserted into the film in random places and serve only to complicate the plot. The power of this original idea is gradually lost.

Although the book’s major theme is unsuccessfully dealt with, the film might otherwise have been resurrected by becoming an above average thriller. However Robert Benton manages to waste even this opportunity by needlessly flashing forward at the very beginning of the film and showing the deaths of both Farley and Silk at the hands of Farley’s ex-husband. All dramatic tension is spoiled and as a result we get a disappointing mess, which fails to utilise the talents of its actors or realise the potential of the novel itself.

For those who have money to burn and time to waste then the Human Stain is to be recommended. However if a good story, strong performances and clever direction is required then this film should definitely be avoided.

09.02.04
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