Having seen the previews of this movie, I was eager to see the full film, which promised a tragic May-December romance between Nicole Kidman and Anthony Hopkins, direction by Robert Benton (Kramer vs. Kramer) and writing by Nicholas Meyer (Fatal Attraction). Plus, it’s all based on the celebrated Philip Roth novel — how could it miss?
Then I read the opinions of some high-profile movie critics — “miscast,” “clunky,” “disappointing.” Oh, dear — did Ken Hanke stick me with another snoozer?
I’m glad to report that The Human Stain is one of those movies that you have to say “negative reviews be damned,” and see it anyway — especially if you’re looking for something out of the ordinary. Stain is an amazingly good movie — ambitious, complicated, engrossing, unsettling — and you leave the theater thoughtful and weak-kneed.
In other words: This is a movie for adults.
It’s the summer of 1998 — the “Summer of Sanctimony,” as the movie’s narrator, novelist Nathan Zuckerman (Gary Sinise, Imposter) calls it — when a semen stain on a presidential intern’s skirt has captured the prurience of a nation. And Coleman Silk (Anthony Hopkins), as dean of small Athena College, has brought the moribund institution kicking and screaming into the modern age, angering a few folks along the way. In a travesty of political correctness, the 60-ish classics professor is falsely accused of making a racist remark, a charge made all the more ironic by the fact that Silk hides a lifelong secret — he’s black, and has been passing for white his entire career. He resigns in a fury, and his stressed-out wife dies in his arms.
Adrift from friends, daily structure and a sense of purpose, Silk wanders into Zuckerman’s life, and as Silk brings the frustrated novelist out of his creative block, the men become close friends. Silk infuses Zuckerman with his ageless love of myth and romance, and the courage of his loneliness.
One day, Silk meets Faunia Farley (Nicole Kidman), a haunted, 34-year-old vagabond who works on the college janitorial staff. She offers him sex. Astonished, Silk finds himself following Faunia into her room, and the improbable lovers embark on a passionate sexual escapade. Silk defies community gossip and the well-intentioned advice of “friends,” and falls headlong in love with Faunia anyway. She is “not my great love, not my first love, but definitely my last love,” he says by way of explaining to Zuckerman why he will not give her up. Meanwhile, looming over Faunia’s life like a relentless pendulum is her revenge-obsessed husband, Les Farley (Ed Harris, The Hours).
The lovers — clinging to one another as if each is a lifeboat of sanity in a sea of madness — reveal their terrible secrets: We learn of Silk’s past (his young self is wonderfully played by Wentworth Miller of TV’s Dinotopia), and how he betrayed his own family, and the dreams they had had for him; Faunia reveals a tragic story of abuse and loss. The stains life has placed on each cannot be removed, but their love for one another gives them hope of redemption.
Some critics say Anthony Hopkins doesn’t look the part of a black man passing for white — they’re wrong. And Nicole Kidman is too beautiful to play a downtrodden loser? Wrong again. Suspend a little disbelief in this movie, and allow Hopkins and Kidman to weave their magic, and to make you believe anything.
– reviewed by Marci Miller