A film review by Craig J. Koban June 20, 2012



2012, no MPAA rating, 155 mins.


Clive Owen: Earnest Hemingway / Nicole Kidman: Martha Gellhorn  

Directed by Phillip Kaufman / Written by Jerry Stahl and Barbara Turner

Phillip Kaufman’s HEMINGWAY AND GELLHORN opens on the image of a strikingly beautiful and poised woman in her seventies.  The blue eyed, silver haired beauty is an aging Martha Gellhorn, the German-American novelist, travel writer, and world renowned journalist that was considered to be one of the more integral war correspondents of the 20th Century.  Perhaps more infamously, she was the third wife to Ernest Hemingway, a marriage that had a short life between 1940 and 1945.  

The hypnotic opening scene has her pontificating – apparently to an off-camera interviewer – on the nature of love and her first meeting with the iconic novelist that fundamentally altered the landscape of fictional prose.  “I always thought that sex was something that you withheld,” she stoically explains.  “Love?  I’m a war correspondent.  Of course there are wars and there are wars.  I was in a café in Key West when I met him.  I remember thinking, ‘Who is that dirty man in those disgusting clothes,’ and then I said to him, ‘I never kissed a fish.’”  

The film then navigates back in time from its present to the day in that Gellhorn described when she did meet the legendary author and proceeds to tell a tumultuous account of their courtship, their inevitable marriage, their break-up, and finally Hemingway’s suicide in 1961.  HEMINGWAY AND GELLHORN  – only Kaufman’s third film as a director since 1993 – ostensibly is less about the love that these two souls shared, per se, than it is about the verbal battles and emotional turmoil that two very independent-minded, fearsomely determined, and politically headstrong people engaged in, which perhaps destroyed one of them while making the other better as a result. 

Gellhorn (Nicole Kidman) is certainly not presented as a weak willed individual, but it’s easy to see how she is completely taken in with Hemingway (Clive Owen) upon their aforementioned first meeting in Key West in 1936.  Gellhorn easily becomes smitten with the sheer magnetism that Hemingway exudes from within as an intelligent, outspoken, and brilliant writer.  Hemingway is attracted to something intangible in Gellhorn while at that fisherman’s bar: an attractive, shrewdly autonomous, and sexually enlightened being that perhaps marked an eerie similarity to Lady Brett Ashley from his THE SUN ALSO RISES.  Neither, of course, will admit to an instant attraction, but the spark of chemistry is there from the onset. 

Although still married to a very devoted Pauline (Molly Parker), Hemingway finds himself forever drawn to Gellhorn.  They meet again in Spain where they are both covering the Spanish Civil War from the front lines.  They stay in the same hotel and on the same floor.  In a scene on impassioned eroticism, the pair come together during a bombing raid.  As warheads make their strikes and debris from the room rains down between them, Hemingway and Gellhorn engage in sex that’s almost feral.  “Is this what you want,” the breathless Gellhorn asks, to which he replies, “It’s what I need.”  Perhaps similarly to how auto wrecks aroused the characters of David Cronenberg’s CRASH, war and the immediacy and brutality of combat is a respective turn-on for Hemingway and Gellhorn.  

They would stay in Spain until 1939, during which Hemingway became borderline obsessed with keeping Gellhorn in his inner circle; maybe he sees in her a somewhat novice writing talent that he could mould and mentor, but would selfishly never allow to be his equal.  Gellhorn, in turn, obviously is taken in with Hemingway’s larger-than-life-stature as a writer.  In 1940 Hemingway’s wife begrudgingly grants her adulterous husband a divorce, which paves the way from him to wed Gellhorn.  As the years pass and Gellhorn begins to assert her own journalistic voice while Hemingway becomes increasingly resentful of her ambitions.  His brazen and unstoppable ego won’t allow for her to achieve success over him, which becomes cemented during one moment when he introduces the film THE SPANISH EARTH that he helped make during the war.  The capacity crowd gives him a lukewarm reception, but when Gellhorn appears she gets a rousing ovation.  Hemingway, from this point on, becomes a man increasingly driven by petty jealousy.  

Kaufman is no stranger to tackling literary subjects in his past films and seems highly adept at honing in on Hemingway and Gelhorn’s highly problematic relationship through the kaleidoscope of history.  The overall scope of the film is quite large, considering the limitations of it being a HBO telefilm with a modest budget.  Kaufman weaves his narrative in and out of places as far ranging as Key West, Spain, New York, Cuba, Finland, England, and China and though conflicts as equally varied as the Spanish Civil War to World War II.  The fact that Kaufman shot the entire film in Northern California – serving as a geographical surrogate for the real locations referenced in the film – is kind of extraordinary.  In a style similar to, say, FORREST GUMP and ZELIG, Kaufman inserts his performers into old, sepia-toned and black and white war footage.  The initial effect of this is kind of jarring – if not lacking in a bit of credibility – but the artistic intent here is to suggest a large and almost surreal backdrop to Hemingway and Gellhorn’s nearly decade-long affair and marriage.  The peculiar production artifice gives the film a haunting dreamlike eminence that compliments its human story rather nicely.  Even the film’s other subtle touches, like the bravura makeup required to credibly age the actors, is astonishingly effective.  

The movie clearly exists to be an actor’s paradise first and foremost over a handsomely mounted period epic, and the two lead stars don’t disappoint.  HEMINGWAY AND GELLHORN is told mostly from Gellhorn’s prerogative, who tells the story through her eyes and recollections of meeting Hemingway and then enduring a hard-hitting and mentally draining relationship with him.  Kidman paints an uncannily vivid portrait of Gellhorn as a woman that is intriguingly Hemingway’s mental equal, but becomes a more stronger and actualized figure as the years go by.  By comparison, Owen’s portrayal of Hemingway is commanding, passionate, and filled with macho posturing and egomaniacal grandstanding.  His work is less delicate and reserved that Kidman’s: he has to embody of a persona that lets his own grandiose image of himself and his own self-importance get not only the better of him, but eventually destroy his relationships with others.  Some have stated that Owen overacts and is perhaps too facetiously showy in the role, which is partially true, but that’s precisely what’s required of him to submerge himself in a role of an overemotional man that allows his masculine pride, neurotic self-centeredness, and ravenous ego get the better of him.  

The central irony of the film that Kaufman discreetly hints at is that the chauvinistic Hemingway indirectly allowed for Gellhorn to find her own inner resolve and strength to bravely forge ahead and become a noteworthy writer on her own during her 60-year career.  She became an empowered woman through her toxic relationship with Hemingway.  Another irony that Kaufman deals with – perhaps a bit more obliquely – is that both writers committed suicide.  HEMINGWAY AND GELLHORN pains to show Hemingway’s devolution from being one of the most influential writers of his century to a man broken down by life (Gellhorn’s suicide is not dealt with at all).  Unfortunately, and even in death, Hemingway still cast an overwhelming shadow over Gellhorn, but she steadfastly refused to let his titanic literary stature get the better of her.  “I have no intention of being a footnote in someone else’s life,” the elderly Gellhorn tells her interviewer at one point.  In many ways, she was more of a man than Hemingway was...and more than he would have ever given her credit for.


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THE GIRL  (2012) jj--


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