A Paler `Stain'

Hopkins-Kidman film misses the shadings of author Philip Roth's masterpiece, but the sad, cautionary tale leaves its mark

October 31, 2003|By Michael Sragow | Michael Sragow,SUN MOVIE CRITIC

Philip Roth's The Human Stain is a great novel that retains some fraction of its explosive force even in Robert Benton's relatively tame movie version. In this melancholy miniaturization of Roth's primed and loaded book, the affair of a politically disgraced classics professor and faculty dean, Coleman Silk (Anthony Hopkins), with a much younger, uncouth cleaning woman, Faunia Farley (Nicole Kidman), becomes the center of a cautious parable of secrets and lies.

Even this limited treatment of Roth's themes and ideas touches on more live-wire content than we're used to seeing in American movies. Coleman, in his dean days, transformed his tweedy New England college into a tiny educational powerhouse. But he's impotent before academia's new language police when, back in the classroom full-time, he refers to a couple of students who have failed to attend his class as "spooks." They turn out to be African-Americans - a fact Coleman couldn't have known, because he never laid eyes on them - and Coleman, without a defender on the faculty, retires rather than apologize.

The crisis triggers his wife's death and drives Coleman to intrude on the solitary writer Nathan Zuckerman (Gary Sinise). Coleman seeks help in turning his agony into a book. Instead, he gets a friend and ultimately a confidante for his affair with Faunia, which scandalizes the college-town community anew and enrages Faunia's ex-husband, Les (Ed Harris), a traumatized Vietnam War vet who blames her for the accidental death of their two children.

This precis suggests how boldly Roth has embedded the tale of Coleman Silk in the social climate and general culture of America in 1998. Everything enters this fiction-writing warlock's brew - the still-lingering aftermaths of the Vietnam War and the feminist and sexual revolutions, the more polite and insidious politicization of today's college campuses, the persistence of both racism and anti-Semitism (Coleman is Jewish), and the class and educational biases that color the reactions to Coleman's romance with Faunia. But aside from reminding us that 1998 was the summer the world fixated on Bill Clinton and Monica Lewinsky, Benton and his screenwriter, Nicholas Meyer, attack Coleman's saga as a conventional chamber drama.

What falls by the wayside is the rush of savage, subtle, often hilarious perceptions that permeate every page of Roth's book. While the filmmakers retain Roth's alter ego Zuckerman as narrator, they jettison most of his running commentary, reduce the kaleidoscope of supporting characters and cut those that remain to the bone.

On the plus side, Benton and Meyer prove the validity of Coleman and Faunia's core relationship. Although he's not at his near-telepathic best, Hopkins embodies Coleman with the reflexive power of a man accustomed to dominance and reawakened to potency. Kidman, who is at her best, imbues Faunia with a sensual wariness more suggestive and haunting than anything she mustered in the more artificially erotic Eyes Wide Shut.

On the down side, despite Harris' magnificent efforts, a character like that damaged-vet Les seems insufficiently fleshed-out and "archetypal": a distant replay of all those unhinged vets who swarmed murderously through American movies of the 1970s. Similarly, Meyer's script reduces professor Delphine Roux (Mimi Kuzyk), who hounds Coleman from his school and then baits him about Faunia, to nothing more than a glamorous Medusa.

And though it's a relief to see any movie these days with a few well-shaped scenes, Benton and Meyer shy away from the daring and intimacy of Roth - whether bowdlerizing a campus discussion of Clinton and Lewinsky or theatrically formalizing an impromptu dance between Coleman and Zuckerman.

The moviemakers' inability to equal Roth/Zuckerman's voice sabotages super-charged material. In the central twist - if you haven't read the book, stop reading here - Roth reveals that Coleman Silk is actually a black man who's been "passing" as white for a half-century. The movie's flashbacks attempt to depict the beauty and dignity of everything Coleman left behind when he cut his connection to his family - and intermittently, they succeed at it.

Wentworth Miller, who plays young Coleman, has the requisite strength for the role as well as a sensitivity absent from Hopkins' aging Coleman. Too bad the filmmakers' dramatic shorthand fails to convey the electric tug of war between a noble family tradition of education and pride, and the giddy American impulse to cut loose in search of total independence.

In the movie, this deception never ignites into incendiary emotions; it's simply the central thread in a fable about the costs of concealing the truth. At least it serves that humble function. This movie nowhere suggests that Roth's American Pastoral, I Married a Communist and The Human Stain are a trilogy as vast as John Dos Passos' U.S.A.

Benton even muffs the profound insight central to all three books, as stated in I Married a Communist: "When you decide to contribute your personal problem to an ideology's agenda, everything that is personal is squeezed out and discarded and all that remains is what is useful to the ideology."

But Benton's movie does bring home the tragedy of Coleman's self-imprisonment as a white man: his inability to defuse the "spooks" controversy because he destroyed his birth identity. Benton's version of The Human Stain feels under-energized and modest to a fault. Yet it still delivers a genuine sad sting.

The Human Stain

Starring Anthony Hopkins, Nicole Kidman, Gary Sinise and Ed Harris

Directed by Robert Benton

Rated R

Released by Miramax

Time 106 minutes

Sun Score ***

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