“Get rid of the girl.” That was the heart of the lecture on Achilles given by Coleman Silk (Anthony Hopkins), a (get this) black passing as a Jewish professor-turned-Dean at a prestigious college. And that expository is the heart of the movie, The Human Stain, in which girls, as much as race, seem to wreak havoc in Silk’s regally-designed life.
But Coleman, whose made a life out of political correctness and a dignified, if false, image, finds that these lies are his downfall when he unwittingly refers to two classmates who’ve never attended his class as ‘spooks’. The shit hits the fan when he’s accused of racism—having never seen them to know they were black—and he’s unable to reveal his own true race after having built a life on lies for so many years.
His wife, Iris, dies from a heart attack during the commotion of his career upheaval, and Silk is set adrift. He befriends a reclusive writer and sometimes-narrator of the story, Nathan Zuckerman (well-played by Gary Sinese), and the dance scene on Zuckerman’s porch is worth the price of admission alone. Coleman reveals to Zuckerman that he’s having an affair with a woman far his junior, Faunia Farley (Nicole Kidman), and they are ultimately pursued by Kidman’s estranged husband, the convincingly out of his mind former Vietnam Vet, (Ed Harris).
All the reviews about The Human Stain are true: it was miscast. But that’s not to say that it isn’t also brilliantly acted and told. One can almost believe it when they see the flashbacks of the younger Coleman (played by Wentworth Brown) with his light-skinned African-American family (except that the GQ Wentworth is far too handsome to have been the talented boxer his character was). But to ask the audience to take the leap from a ruddy-complected Wentworth to blue-eyed, British-speaking Anthony Hopkins is another thing again. Still, Hopkins makes you love the role, simply because he believes he is Coleman Silk, even when we don’t.
And there’s no problem believing Nicole Kidman’s role. Yes, she’s too beautiful to be milking cows and pulling janitorial duty. But the back story explains she was once a rich girl. Her acting is impeccable, and her accent and mannerisms so believable that she is downright scary in her roughness and eerily unbalanced. She peels away the layers of her emotional armor and abuse in a convincing and authentic way that is alternately repelling and alluring. It’s a magnificent performance, right up there with her role as Virginia Wolfe in The Hours (only with a better nose).
Not for action-buffs, The Human Stain is a quiet movie with some meat on its bones that leaves the audience thinking through its various themes for days afterward. There’s social commentary on sex and race (it takes place during the Clinton-Lewinsky scandal), age, and honesty, and, perhaps like Philip Roth’s ambitious novel, it winds up with more questions than it answers. Yes, the movie takes on too much, and asks too much of the audience. But somehow, it survives and succeeds because it’s captivating and well-done.
The Human Stain, Rated R
4 out of 5 stars
Starring: Anthony Hopkins, Nicole Kidman, Gary Sinise, Ed Harris, Jacinda Barrett
Directed by: Robert Benton
Produced by: Tom Rosenberg, Gary Lucchesi, Thomas Rosenberg, Scott Steindorff