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The Human Stain (15)



Review by: Jack Foley | Rating: One

DVD SPECIAL FEATURES: Behind the scenes; Deleted/extended scene; Jean Yves Esoffier tribute.

WITH its top-notch cast and award-winning director, The Human Stain immediately feels like the type of movie that has been made with the Oscar season in mind, which makes its numerous failures all the more glaring.

Based on the acclaimed novel by Philip Roth, and starring Anthony Hopkins and Nicole Kidman, the film suffers from being horrendously miscast from the outset, as well as an overly-intricate plot that buckles under the strain of its own burden.

Roth’s novel tackles issues of racism, hidden identities, sexual deviance and political scandal (it is set against the Clinton sex scandal of 1998) in a thoughtful, intelligent manner, yet Robert Benton’s film attempts to shoe-horn everything into a tight running time (106 minutes) without every really managing to engage the viewer.

Hopkins stars as classics professor, Coleman Silk, a man with a terrible secret, whose life begins to unravel around him when he inadvertently refers to two of his students as ‘spooks’, triggering a racial scandal.

He loses his job, his reputation and his wife, but subsequently begins an affair with Nicole Kidman’s troubled janitor, Faunia, which threatens to expose his hidden past, and which places his life in danger from her estranged Vietnam-veteran husband, Lester Farley (Ed Harris).

The ensuing tale of tragedy is relayed via a reclusive author, Nathan Zuckerman (Gary Sinise), who has formed a friendship with Silk, and who resolves to uncover the unknown biography of his once-great companion and new-found mentor.

While certainly convoluted, Benton’s film doesn’t help itself by throwing in plenty of flashbacks to Silk’s early years, during which his African-American roots are consistently exposed and undermine his early ambition. Hence, the film feels very disjointed and never flows as well as it should.

What’s more ironic, however, is that these early scenes, involving newcomer, Wentworth Miller, as the young Coleman Silk, actually work better than those which take place in the present, when the full extent of the miscasting becomes apparent.

For starters, the deeply sexual relationship between Silk and Faunia never convinces, especially as Hopkins looks ill at ease with the material, and Kidman fails to cut it as a white trash femme fatale, while neither of the characters manage to engage you quite as emphatically as they should.

Their performances feel very manipulated and cold, almost as though they are going through the motions for the sake of it, and serve to lessen the impact of the final revelations.

Harris, too, appears to be on psychopathic auto-pilot, while Sinise lacks the passion needed to make his search for the truth overly sympathetic, or worthwhile.

And therein lies the film’s biggest problem - a sustained failure to engage the audience, emotionally, which makes it difficult to become hooked by the rest of its themes.

The Clinton sex scandal is only really briefly alluded to, in an almost half-hearted way, while the issues of racism, domestic violence and constructing a life around a lie, while certainly powerful, lack the impact they ought to have carried.

In the end, Benton - who directed the Oscar-winning weepie, Kramer vs Kramer - leaves viewers feeling as cold as the snowy landscapes which litter proceedings, making this more of a stain on the CVs of all involved, rather than anything they can be proud of. It is a major disappointment for all concerned.

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