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The Human Stain   C+

Miramax Films

Year Released: 2003
MPAA Rating: R
Director: Robert Benton
Writer: Nicholas Meyer (based on the novel by Philip Roth)
Cast: Anthony Hopkins, Nicole Kidman, Ed Harris, Gary Sinise, Wentworth Miller, Jacinda Barrett, Phyllis Newman, Anna Deavere Smith.

Review by Rob Vaux

The Human Stain is a notable accomplishment for actor Wentworth Miller. Every time he's on-screen, he radiates the pain and desire that the film presumably hopes to convey, drawing us into his character's agonizing dilemma. He articulates the filmmakers' emotions, grapples with the piece's central issues, and personifies the material's most admirable question -- a question that we ponder long after the film is over.

In between, there's a lot of polished nonsense featuring two unknowns named Kidman and Hopkins.

Films like The Human Stain are as calculating as any Hollywood blockbuster. The only difference is that they're assembled with awards in mind instead of opening grosses. Take a meaningful but non-controversial subject, add a handful of Oscar winners (or at least a few perennial bridesmaids), deliver it with engaging yet terminally solemn overtones, and sic the marketing department on every critic you can think of. Presto! Instant "film for the ages" whose legacy lasts about as long as it takes for next year's batch to be cranked out. The Human Stain makes good use of its assets, yet the final product feels as soulless as Bad Boys II.

Its primary strength lies in Miller -- or more accurately, in the flashback sequences which Miller occupies. He plays Coleman Silk, a light-skinned black man able to pass for white in the segregationist pall of the 1940s. His complexion offers him a nasty Faustian bargain: with opportunities so limited and even intelligent men such as his father forced to wait dining cars for a living, why not just drop the stigma and present yourself as a Caucasian? Doors would open -- the likes of which no other African American at the time could even hope for -- and it would remove the "Negro" qualifier from his accomplishments forever. The catch is that he would have to abandon his family, his friends, and his heritage: close them off as if they never existed.

Director Robert Benton takes great care to confront the realities of that choice without pressing our noses in it. Miller's scenes work very well, and provide a convincing glimpse of the kind of world that Silk is battling against. He doesn't wish to be stigmatized: he just wants the freedom to be judged on his actions, not his genetics. The Human Stain brings a poignancy to that desire, and raises some thoughtful issues that sadly never last beyond the flashbacks. And those flashbacks don't cover more than 40 minutes of screen time. The remainder takes place in 1998, amid headlines of the Clinton-Lewinsky scandal. Silk is now played by Anthony Hopkins, a prestigious professor at a private Massachusetts school. He's buried his past so completely that it opens him up to racism charges, a misplaced piece of political correctness that threatens to destroy everything he's built. The irony is not lost on him, and he chooses to exacerbate the scandal by taking up with one of the school's cleaning women (Nicole Kidman), who's nursing plenty of scars of her own.

Their relationship is supposed to be the film's big gun -- the reason everybody wants to see it -- and yet it never quite convinces us of its strength. Hopkins has spent the last few years running on Hannibal Lecter fumes, and it's admittedly gratifying to see him sink his teeth into something substantive. But his demons aren't as potent as they are in the flashback scenes, and his injuries don't carry the same weight. Kidman is even more problematic: her skills as an actress war with her almost inhuman beauty, leaving a fascinating but flawed performance in their wake. We never quite buy her convenient tattoos or her rough New England accent, though she succeeds in holding our attention nonetheless. Add to them a superfluous Ed Harris as Kidman's psychotic ex-husband and a shackled Gary Sinese as Silk's lone friend, and The Human Stain soon becomes hopelessly laden with misplaced pretense.

Perhaps most troublesome is its lack of real courage, an unwillingness to challenge the audience about the topic it presumes to espouse. It had the chance to take a bold and daring look at a fascinating subject -- racial passing is rarely discussed in the movies -- but to do so might have alienated too many people, and thus hampered its run at the big brass ring. So like so many films before, it settles into soft homogenized platitudes. Competence isn't the issue here. Benton is a fine director, the scenery is quite evocative, and none of the performers drops the ball (though Sinese is stuck with some wretched voice-overs). It simply feels too neat and tidy to convince us of its merits. The contrivances are functional as drama, but intellectually inert, and the strength of the flashbacks can't hold up against the crushing weight of the central story. Empty workmanship doesn't mean much for a film trying to sell us on its importance, no matter how many Oscar winners are on the marquee. The Human Stain is a perfect example of why true artistry never comes unless someone takes a chance.

Review published 10.31.2003.

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