The Human Stain

Movie Information

In Brief: Critically reviled at the time of its release — especially for something that was clearly Oscar-bait — Robert Benton's The Human Stain (2003) isn't so much a bad movie as it's an underwhelming one. It's a film that never takes off due to Benton's decidedly old-fashioned filmmaking and its overbearing attempt to be Important. The story of an aged professor (Anthony Hopkins) discharged for racism (despite being secretly black himself) and his affair with a younger woman (Nicole Kidman) would have been better served by embracing its soapy underpinnings than by taking a high-toned literary approach.
Genre: Drama
Director: Robert Benton (Kramer vs. Kramer)
Starring: Anthony Hopkins, Nicole Kidman, Ed Harris, Gary Sinise, Wentworth Miller
Rated: R

The reason I handed Robert Benton’s The Human Stain (2003) over to my then-associate critic Marci Miller for review is lost in some dark corridor of memory. But I did, and since nothing about the film sounded all that compelling, I never got around to seeing it — till now. I was hoping to be either pleasantly surprised by how good it was, or utterly appalled by how cack-handedly awful it was. Instead, I found myself in the rather dreary world of the Perfectly Fine. Oh, true, Robert Benton’s direction is of the old-fashioned Oscar-bait school of filmmaking — so finely tooled that it feels like it ought to be bound in Morocco leather and placed on a display case in a department store for a last minute Christmas gift. (The scene where the camera pulls back in the stateliest possible manner through a doorway when Anthony Hopkins’ wife dies is almost funny — especially when her decorously draped arm goes limp so that even the dimmest viewer will realize she’s dead — and that clearly wasn’t the intention.)

Other than that, the story is OK — hinged,  as it is, on the irony that a black college professor (Hopkins) who’s been passing for white most of his life would be fired for using the word “spooks” in the obviously ghostly sense. This assumes you can buy Hopkins as a black man — which is actually a little easier than it sounds. His drifting into a relationship with a much younger woman (Nicole Kidman) — from a supposedly lower class — also works pretty well. But the problem is that the story — especially when her psycho ex-husband (Ed Harris) comes on the scene as The Menace — is basically soapy trash and needed to be approached as such. Instead, everyone — except maybe Hopkins who is in his scenery-chewing mode — seems to believe this is very literary and Important. In truth it’s mish-mash of Golden Boy boxing cliches and Imitation of Life racial woes with a May-December romance (enlivened with Viagra) and a psycho thrown in. Almodovar would have known what to do with it. So would Lee Daniels. Robert Benton — not so much. Hopkins is entertaining. Kidman is strikingly good. Wentworth Miller is exceptional as Hopkins’ younger self. Ed Harris is twitchy. And Gary Sinise is less obnoxious than usual as a kind of sub-Nick Carraway observer. But that’s about it.

The Hendersonville Film Society will show The Human Stain Sunday, Sept. 22, at 2 p.m. in the Smoky Mountain Theater at Lake Pointe Landing Retirement Community (behind Epic Cinemas), 333 Thompson St., Hendersonville.

About Ken Hanke
Head film critic for Mountain Xpress from December 2000 until his death in June 2016. Author of books "Ken Russell's Films," "Charlie Chan at the Movies," "A Critical Guide to Horror Film Series," "Tim Burton: An Unauthorized Biography of the Filmmaker."

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6 thoughts on “The Human Stain

  1. Bambino Noir

    I was astonished by your contemptuous review of one of my favorite films. Here’s is an alternative opinion from another prominent reviewer:

    “Moving, intelligent adaptation (by Nicholas Meyer) of Philip Roth’s novel about a distinguished college professor (Anthony Hopkins) whose life is shattered by a chance remark. As he reveals more about himself to a newfound friend (Gary Sinise) we learn that he has been living a lie for most of his adult life. His chance for rebirth and redemption comes through an unlikely affair with a working-class woman much younger than he (Nicole Kidman). Rich in nuance, filled with pitch-perfect performances, and beautifully shot by the late Jean Yves Escoffier. A compelling film.”

  2. Ken Hanke

    I’m sorry but I didn’t find it compelling. I wasn’t contemptuous of the attempt or most of the performances, but the resulting film mostly doesn’t work for me. Might I ask who the reviewer is? Just curious.

  3. Xanadon't

    I rather enjoyed the review. But then again, I’ve never seen the movie in question. Regardless, playful observances like this:

    • Simon

      It’s a beautiful,touching , intelligent movie. Brilliant performance by Nicole.kidman and Anthony Hopkins as always gets so much into the part that he lives it.

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