Video Virgil: Washed Out
I quit reading Philip Roth around the time he wrote "The Breast" - a case, methought, of Big Author morphing into Big Boob. But "The Human Stain" is supposed to be a good book. Which may well be, because it stops short of being a good film the way films made from good books often do. In particular, the film faithfully depicts every surface wrinkle of a relationship that is of interest only in its emotional depths. Among other things this causes the sex scenes to have an odd, second-hand quality, as though they had been staged by one of those aliens who go around abducting humans and calibrating their gonads.
But I'm getting ahead of myself. "The Human Stain" is two films, and one is indeed very good (if truncated). It opens with the less than good one, starring Anthony Hopkins as a sixtyish classics professor named Coleman Silk, who uses the word "spook" to describe two students who never show up in class (and are therefore invisible, like ghosts). As luck would have it, the students are black, so Coleman is hurled into the sort of P.C. hell that could erupt all too easily in place named "Athena College" in "Athena," Massachusetts.
Poor Coleman’s wife is so distraught she dies of a heart attack, and the only friend he has left is Nathan Zuckerman, Roth's fictional alter ego (Gary Sinise). It's just as well Nathan is there, because when Coleman meets Faunia Farley (Nicole Kidman), an unhappy young woman who works menial jobs in the town, the resurgence of lust he experiences might escape the viewer’s attention, save that Coleman tells Nathan all about it. On the screen Coleman's emotion looks more like dyspepsia. More erotic than any of the Hopkins-Kidman scenes is the sequence where Coleman puts Fred Astaire on the stereo and induces Nathan to dance with him to "Cheek to Cheek."
Part of the problem is Kidman, who labors so hard to look scuzzy, she has no time to flesh out a character who (in the novel) must labor to look pretty. One of these days, Hollywood will cast a plain woman as a plain woman. But don't hold your breath.
Of course, none of this is the point. Just as Kidman is trying to pass as a scuzz, so is Coleman trying to pass as something he’s not. In particular, he’s not Jewish, as everyone thinks. He’s black. Hence the irony of the racism charge. And hence the plot of the other film, the good but truncated one.
The good film is a flashback in which Wentworth Miller plays the young Coleman, the son of a genteel African-American family who learns the hard way that the world of his aspirations is off limits to him as a Negro. So Coleman (who is, as the saying goes, "light, bright, and damn near white") decides to pass - and in doing so breaks two hearts, his mother's and his own. Every actor in this flashback is superb, from Anna Deveare Smith as Coleman’s mother to Jacinda Barrett as the white girlfriend who leaves him when she learns of his background. It’s too bad this part couldn’t be the whole movie.
Coleman never shares his secret with anyone – not colleagues, not Nathan, not even his wife – until at the end he shares it with Faunia. He does so because Faunia has painful secrets of her own. The trouble is, it’s hard to care about Faunia’s secrets, because they seem cobbled together for the occasion. First, her poverty is not inherited, like that of most struggling people who mop floors in elite institutions. Like a character in Dickens, Faunia is high born but fallen low through no fault of her own.
Whose fault is it? Brace yourself for the cliches: a sexually abusive stepfather, and a crazy Vietnam vet husband (Ed Harris, wasting his talent). For the sake of the story, I’m willing to tolerate Hopkins as the older Coleman, although his resemblance to the younger is nil. But compared with the other female characters, Faunia feels like something cut and pasted from a bad TV movie. It is sad her crazy husband drives the lovers off the road into a frozen lake. But it is not surprising. For all the talent that went into it, this movie was badly steered from the beginning.