The Human Stain

Film review of The Human Stain, originally published in the Australian Jewish News, March 5, 2004

Directed by Robert Benton
Written by Nicholas Meyer, based on the novel by Philip Roth
Starring Anthony Hopkins, Nicole Kidman, Ed Harris, Gary Sinise and Wentworth Miller

Noted American-Jewish author Philip Roth’s novels have had a mixed result when adapted to the screen (see my post about this topic):  Goodbye Columbus became the most successful Jewish-theme films of the 1960s (and remains fascinating to this day for its insightful and humorous portrayal of suburban Jewish life), but Portnoy’s Complaint was a classic case of a book that never should have been adapted to the screen. So it is with interest (concern?) that I approached the latest adaptation: Roth’s best-seller The Human Stain, directed by Robert Benton and written by Nicholas Meyer.

The Human Stain is not a perfect novel, but arguably one of Roth’s most fascinating creations and one of the most absorbing modern American novels on the nature of personal identity.  The lead character is Coleman Silk, a professor of classics at a New England college who carries a wounding secret:  he is an African-American, but “reinvented” himself in the late 1940s (well before it was fashionable to do so) as Jewish.  In doing so, the light-skinned Silk turned his back on his family and rejected not only his race and his roots but his whole young life.

The book (and film) picks up the story in 1998, during the Clinton Presidential impeachment hearings.  Coleman Silk – who has had a very successful academic career at Athena College, rising to the position of Dean of the College – is accused of racism for referring to two absent (and totally unseen) students as “spooks”.  To this charge, Silk only responds with anger, and not the (hoped for) contrition.  Silk, now at age 70, later commences an affair with Faunia Farley, an illiterate cleaner at the college who is half his age.  This passionate relationship comes with its own trials, shadowed by the recent death of Faunia’s two children and her half-crazed violent husband Lester, who stalks her.  The story is told by Nathan Zuckerman (a character from a number of other Roth books), a withdrawn and emotionally damaged Jewish writer (with a passing resemblance to Roth himself) who befriends Coleman Silk and discovers his secrets.

 There is a lot of plot in The Human Stain, what with extensive flashbacks to Coleman’s early life in the navy and in university, backgrounding his decision to “become” Jewish – neatly turning the question of Jewish assimilation 180 degrees: Jews want to become Anglos, but the blacks are so desperate they want to become Jewish.  In all of this, Meyer’s script is outstanding, and one of the best complex adaptations I have seen.  He has kept the main story both in feel and in action, and stripped the book of inconsequentials.

Benton is also an excellent director, and The Human Stain (the film) looks exactly like I had imagined it should:  shot in and around Williams College and Williamstown, Massachusetts, the absolutely perfect setting for Athena College.  The supporting cast are also extraordinary.  Ed Harris plays the redneck Lester Farley with the controlled menace and believable madness.  Gary Sinise – who I would not have picked for an introspective Jewish writer – did end up convincing me, mostly because I felt his pain.  In his first film role, Wentworth Miller reportedly felt his role of the young Coleman very strongly, as he comes from mixed black and white parentage.  Anna Deavere Smith is scintillating as Coleman’s mother.

But I am still troubling over the headlining actors of The Human Stain:  Anthony Hopkins as the older Coleman, and Nicole Kidman as Faunia Farley.  Hopkins can play crazy, or British butlers or academics, or industrialists, or even Richard Nixon, but an American black man masquerading as Jewish stretched my credibility.  Kidman was a great Virginia Wolff and a convincing Cold Mountain preacher’s daughter (also see my review of her in the film Australia), but has skin too fine and a bearing too regal to become the down-on-her-luck Faunia. Hopkins and Kidman act superbly in The Human Stain, but that’s just what it is: acting, not inhabiting their roles in the true sense that they were written.

The Human Stain is a wonderful and at times moving film marred by odd casting choices.  That, of course, is the point of the story: in modern America, we can reinvent ourselves, be who we want to be, but it does cost us in the end.

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