A film review by Craig J. Koban


2003, R, 110 mins.

Coleman Silk: Anthony Hopkins / Faunia Farley: Nicole Kidman / Lester Farley: Ed Harris / Nathan Zuckerman: Gary Sinise / Young Coleman Silk: Wentworth Miller / Steena Paulsson: Jacinda Barrett / Iris Silk: Phyllis Newman / Mrs. Silk: Anna Deavere Smith

Directed by Robert Benton / Written by Nicholas Meyer


I will find it next-to-impossible to discuss this film without revealing elements of the story and crucial details about certain characters.  Hence, this review will contain SPOILERS.

Robert Benton’s film adaptation of THE HUMAN STAIN is a great film trapped in a mediocre body.  It makes for one of those most puzzling films for critics because to discuss it in any particular or specific detail would require me to reveal the most tantalizing and pertinent plot twist in the film.  Yet, it is with this very plot point that arises my biggest misgivings with the film, especially when it comes to the casting of the great Anthony Hopkins in the lead role.  However, the film’s producer, Tom Rosenberg,  has been publicly quoted as saying that the filmmakers are “not trying to hide” the film’s big secret.  As a result, and with their obvious blessing, I will go forward and reveal the secret of the film in my review in an effort to better equip myself with some literary firepower as to why the film is ultimately disappointing. 

I guess that before I lumber forward and discuss the film in greater detail, I will sum up my initial misgivings in a non-spoiler manner – the film is well acted but, ironically, has the lead character horribly miscast.  The film also has small character moments of brilliance, but the sum of the parts of these few scenes don’t stand up well to the whole.  What we are left with is inevitably a well-conceived idea that is not thoroughly explored and a screenplay that lacks focus and congruence.  From a great director like Benton (who did NOBODY’S FOOL, PLACES IN THE HEART, and KRAMER VS KRAMER) THE HUMAN STAIN is a dramatic letdown that is widely uneven and fails to build any real momentum. 

Okay, the rest of the review will be ripe with S-P-O-I-L-L-E-R-S…you’ve been warned.  

THE HUMAN STAIN details the life of a Professor of Classics at Athena College named Coleman Silk (played effectively, if not a bit inconsistently, by Hopkins) and covers two different time periods of his life.  The film ostensibly takes plays in the late 90’s when the media and nation were glued to their TV sets following the Bill Clinton/Monica Lewinsky sex scandal that was impregnating the nation.  Why the film focuses so much on this particular scandal is a bit illusive, if not ambiguous.  Anyway, one day in his class Coleman notices the absence (or continued absence for that matter) of two of his students.  He calls out their names and ponders their whereabouts.  He seems convinced that they have never attended class, and in a small fit of personal frustration cathartically speaks out to the class, “Are they real or are they spooks?”  It is with this line where the film propels forward. 

It turns out, unknown to Coleman, that the two absent students in question were African American, which in turn gets him into trouble with the local faculty.  The two students, hearing what Coleman said in class, incorrectly believed that he was referring to them in a derogatory light when he used the term “spooks”.  In one amusing moment, Coleman  lashes out at his colleagues, stating that calling someone a “ghostly apparition” should hardly be grounds for a redundant and needless tribunal.  His colleagues don’t seem to waver much, and apparently don’t think that his innocuous and non-ethnocentric referral to the students was innocent.  Coleman, instead of fighting the matter,  resigns in an absolute fit of rage.  His attitude and emotions seem overwrought in this crucial moment, as does Hopkins’ apparent lack of subtlety in his performance.  He even runs into his home and nearly trashes it in anger, with his concerned wife looking on.  Yet, it is revealed much later in the film why there is so much emotional fuel to Coleman's anger. 

You see, Coleman Silk is an African American, a secret that he has kept from even the most intimate people he knows for most of his life.   

Fleeing from what he sees is the complete lack of foresight that the arena of political correctness often has, Coleman eventually confides in his wife.  She is so shocked by the charges that she drops dead of a brain embolism.  A brief period of time lapses and Coleman then decides that his story would be prime material for a tell-all book.  He then finds and enlists the aid of a reclusive divorcee named Nathan Zuckermann (Gary Sinise) to help him pen the story, seeing as Zuckermann is an accomplished writer.  Interestingly, Nathan decides not to help Coleman with his book, but the two eventually become fast friends, maybe in an effort for the story to allow Coleman to confess his thoughts and reveal his feelings to the audience. 

The two pals confide in many matters, more specifically about the woman that Coleman has met and become infatuated with.  Nicole Kidman play Faunia, a 34-year-old college custodian that meets Coleman and eventually embarks in a sexual relationship with him.  She too has some deep, penetrating wounds under her skin and in her dark past.  Her story also involves tragedy, primarily from the fact that her ex-husband (Ed Harris) is homicidal in his jealousy.  Despite her earthly,  yet shy and reserved demeanor, she eventually is able to form a bond with Coleman, as the two begin to unravel and discover each other’s pasts.  Coleman learns more about Faunia while personally revealing to her memories of an early love he had when he was a younger man in the 1940’s.  More importantly, he tells the tale of how he used his light colored skin to silence his African American heritage in an effort to live his life as a white man and lead a “normal” life free of bigotry and racism.  This choice leads to disastrous consequences for both Coleman’s first love and his relationship with his own family. 

The film, thematically, works on a few distinct levels.  First, and more simply, it’s a love story, both between Coleman and his first love as a young man and his sexually charged fling with Faunia as an older man.  The two seem like completely incompatible people – Coleman is the  well-read intellectual and Faunia is the more down-to-earth and monosyllabic country girl.  Their relationship, not too unlike the one in THE LAST TANGO OF PARIS, is primarily a sexual outlet for them both (added with a necessary ingredient of Viagra, seeing as Coleman is a man in declining years).  Yet, it is their channeling of their sexual appetites that eventually allows them to deconstruct themselves and dive into personal details that neither of them probably foresaw revealing.  Their romantic fling does not go over very well with Faunia's  lunatic husband, and he emerges out of the shadows as a potentially dangerous element.  You just know that this crazy coot will not allow things to end happily for both of them. 

On a second and much more controversial level, the film is really about bypassing one’s own ethnicity.  Both the original novel by Philip Roth and the screenplay from Nicholas Meyer (yes, the man who co-wrote and directed some of the STAR TREK movies) tells this daring and ultimately tragic story of how one man pretends to be a different person by mentally disowning his own culture and race.  Clearly and historically,  this precedent was not something unique to Coleman’s case, as several light skinned African Americans have passed themselves off as white in the pre-Civil Rights world as a way to work around the inevitable bigotry they would experience.   For some people, this would, no doubt, be a personally difficult and courageous decision to make that would appear to allow these individuals to lead “free” lives. 

Yet, as a consequence of his choice, Coleman really becomes trapped in a void of inner despair.  The college charges against him would have ultimately been quickly dropped if he revealed his true heritage (everyone thinks  he’s Jewish; I guess it never occurred to the faculty that a Jewish man would probably never publicly use racial slurs).  Furthermore, Coleman would have not experienced some of the painful losses he was forced to endure.  Ultimately, his risky choice was just that, and he really became more isolated because of it. 

The film is truly a fascinating journey and explores some jarring themes.  Yet, it remains a bit of a failure on one single level – it’s just  impossible to believe Anthony Hopkins as a black man.  Maybe he just carries too much baggage for the role.  I dunno.  He’s perfectly fine playing Coleman, but physically it’s just very hard to find him credible in it.  Suspension of disbelief is crucial in films (actually, they pretty much require it on an on-going basis) but here its a stretch to unearthly lengths.  Our suspension of disbelief is made all the more problematic with how Hopkins portrays the character and how the other actor (Wentworth Miller) portrays the younger version of him.  Amazingly, Wentworth does not in any way shape or form have an English accent, nor does he try to employ the use of one.  Secondly, the two actors look so unlike one another that the illusion is more distracting than flawless.  Actually, Miller is much more plausible in the role as the younger Coleman than Hopkins, and its sort of easy to believe that he is an African American.  But the two performances are so different and that it becomes more peculiar and disheartening.  The inconsistencies in both performances with one another sort of undermines the whole film. 

The film also does not work well on a narrative level.  It’s told largely in an unnecessarily disjointed plot that meanders back and forth along timelines.  It starts in the third act, goes back to the present, weaves back and forth from the present to the 1940’s and eventually brings us back to the beginning of the film and to its final act.  Why the story was not just told progressively is beyond me.  Having this sort of narrative assemblage works sometimes, but here the effect takes away from the focus and cohesion of the overall story.  It shifts back and forth so awkwardly that you feel that Benton and Meyer seem utterly confused by where they want the film to go.  There is also a third act that is way, way too long and ends in a frustrating moment of complete ambiguity. 

The performances themselves are also a  mixed bag.  Hopkins and Kidman are fine together, although they lack real chemistry, and Sinise (as Zuckermann and the film’s narrator) seems underdeveloped and uninspired.  The worst character casualty is the husband played by Ed Harris, who portrays him with more dimension than the screenplay really gives him.  Harris is good, but his character, like Sinise’s, lacks development. 

THE HUMAN STAIN is not a bad film, just one that suffers from some superficial implausibilities and a confused plot that needed a re-write before the film should have been started.  The film does probe into some intriguing ideas, but it does not dive deep enough into them and misses some real dramatic possibilities with the controversial material.  It felt more like it was  looking from the outside and needed to approach the themes more aggressively.  The film does work in its small character moments that are the result of some fine performances, but THE HUMAN STAIN is a potentially great drama that falls apart by its lack of narrative clarity.  For a film with ideas so complex, so tragic, so sad, and so potentially controversial,  Benton’s film feels rushed and abbreviated.  Watching it was like witnessing something great being developed and then quickly expiring and evaporating into thin air. 

And Hopkins as a black man…c’mon!?

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