2003-12-05 / Columnists

MovieScope By Robert Snyder

"The Human Stain"
MovieScope By Robert Snyder

"The Human Stain" – Hopkins Strains

Anthony Hopkins is a consummate actor known for his skill at playing anyone and anything. However, with the film, "The Human Stain," the great thespian appears to have met his match in the character of Coleman Silk.

Based on the acclaimed Philip Roth novel, "The Human Stain," is a complex psychological study of "one of the first Jews to teach the classics in an American college." The problem is that Silk is not who he claims to be... on many levels. While he is highly intelligent and erudite, he has a serious issue with his racial identity. A light-skinned African American, he chose the white race as his own in his early years, renouncing his family and attending an upper-class college on a boxing scholarship under the mentorship of his Jewish coach (whose religious identity he steals).

His inner turmoil comes to a head when he inadvertently blurts out a racial slur during a lecture, resulting in his resignation from the university that he helped to academically upgrade. Bent on revenge, he goes to writer Nathan Zuckerman (Gary Sinise), who is living in an isolated cabin, nursing his trauma from two divorces and a bout with prostate cancer. Silk wants Zuckerman to write his biography with the idea of throwing darts at the college.

In the midst of this mess, Silk has an affair with a sultry, disturbed janitor at the college named Faunia Farley (Nicole Kidman). She is also riddled with a troubled past and stalked by ex-husband and Viet Nam vet psycho Lester (Ed Harris).

Although the acting is always interesting, the movie’s major players are hopelessly miscast. Harris and Sinise are wasted in minuscule parts, while Hopkins and Kidman seem have lost their search for a connection to their characters. Hopkins may have mastered his portrayals of Nixon and Picasso, but he can’t get a grip on an intellectual who is wrestling with a racial identity crisis. At one point, Silk entices Zuckerman to join in an elegant Fred Astaire dance duet. Maybe, the message is that Silk has a white soul, trapped in an almost-white body with a black genetic background. This is too convoluted for simple minds, like mine.

As for Kidman, she’s determined to be downbeat, much as Meg Ryan does in "In the Cut." She may have succeeded in transforming into suicidal author Virginia Woolf in "The Hours," but she is as adrift here as she is in "Eyes Wide Shut."

One person who plays it right is Wentworth Miller portraying young Coleman. A British-born actor who is bi-racial, Miller’s scenes are reminiscent of more effective socially conscious movies about race ("To Kill A Mockingbird," "Pinky") He’s particularly strong in sequences which his character shares with Coleman’s lily white girlfriend, Steena Paulsson (Jacinda Barrett), and his mother (Anna Deavere Smith). When Coleman naively brings Steena home to meet Momma, the movie becomes the flipside of "Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner?" as the young girl is devastated with the revelation that her boyfriend is black. Smith later steals the screen when she confronts her son about his decision to camouflage his color.

In a recent published interview, the film’s Oscar-winning director, Robert Benton ("Kramer vs. Kramer," "Places in the Heart") said that such socially conscious pictures as "Stain" are "incredibly difficult" to make and market. This story is also tough to adapt. It may be faithful to the book, but the Nicholas Meyer script is a mix left unresolved. Individual episodes are intriguing (largely due to the high-powered acting), yet nothing comes together. We’re unsettled and unsatisfied.

Best to stick with Roth and read.

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