When Coleman Silk (Anthony Hopkins), a longtime classics professor on the verge of retirement, is called into question for using a word in class that is misinterpreted as a racial slur, he suddenly finds himself fired. What the Deans of Massachusetts' Athens College fail to realizeand Coleman chooses not to divulgeis a secret he has kept his whole life that, were it put out in the open, would have saved his job.
Thus begins "The Human Stain," based on the novel by Philip Roth and directed by Robert Benton (1998's "Twilight"), an involving, multilayered drama that improves as it marches toward its effective conclusion, but is burdened by its all-too-obvious ploy to be Miramax's next big Oscar contender. The film simply tries too hard to be "serious" cinema, coming off over-the-top at times because of it, but the performances are strong and its fluid interweaving of the past and present is largely effective.
Jobless and having recently lost his wife, Iris (Phyllis Newman), a second chance at happiness and love enters Coleman's dwindling life in the form of 34-year-old Faunia (Nicole Kidman), a troubled but bewitching university janitor harboring a dark secret of her own. Coleman's sees Faunia as his chance for salvation, but, for reasons that gradually unveil themselves, Faunia is hesitant to get too close to anyone. Their hesitant relationship, bubbling with passion and eventually love, leads them toward a fatalistic event that would seem tragic if not for the cathartic connection they have made with each other.
"The Human Stain" is a severely flawed motion picture, but manages to rise above its low points and make an indelible emotional impact. The narration, given by Coleman's writer friend, Nathan (Gary Sinise), is unnecessary and lazy, opting too often to tell information rather than visually show it. Sinise, giving a memorably low-key performance, nonetheless has a voice that seems out of place for voice-over work, making the narration all the more stilted. The film, which simultaneously depicts the relationship between Coleman and Faunia and flashes back to Coleman as a young man (Wentworth Miller), becomes more high-charged the longer it goes on, but doesn't go on long enough. Both storiesthe present-day romance and the earlier life-changing decisions Coleman madeare powerful in isolated moments, but are not given the amount of time and depth to fully come alive. Other scenes, such as an impromptu dance between Coleman and Nathan and a boxing lesson between the young Coleman and fetching girlfriend Steena (Jacinda Barrett), are poorly conceived and receive unintentional laughs.
The performances are on a plain higher than the film they are in. It is refreshing to once again see Anthony Hopkins (2002's "Red Dragon
") in a dramatic role that does not involve Hannibal Lecter, and he is excellent as the Viagra-enhanced Coleman Silk. Hopkins performs a scene where he tells Nathan that Faunia "is not my one true love, but she is my last love," with a decided acceptance in his voice over the choices he has made in his life that is heartbreaking. Nicole Kidman (2002's "The Hours
"), beautiful as ever despite a clear attempt to downgrade her beauty to white-trash level, plausibly inhabits the difficult role of Faunia. Kidman is truly one of the great modern-day acting talents, and her Faunia smolders with both sexuality and a mournful feeling of loss.
As the young Coleman, Wentworth Miller (2003's "Underworld
") astonishes not so much for his physical likeness to Hopkins but for his uncanny duplication in both voice and mannerism. Jacinda Barrett (2000's "Urban Legends: Final Cut
"), a former cast member of MTV's "The Real World," genuinely surprises in her astute, touching portrayal of Coleman's "one true love," Steena. Meanwhile, Ed Harris (2002's "The Hours
") is underutilized as Faunia's dangerous, jealous ex-husband, Lester.
The most intriguing element of "The Human Stain" is the primary question it acts: how much power does one secret have in changing the fate of a person's life? Director Robert Benton, a three-time Academy Award winner, is certainly qualified to answer this question, but this story deserves a more exacting treatment than the one he and screenwriter Nicholas Meyer have delivered. The performances save the day in "The Human Stain," bringing humanity to a worthwhile film that could have ultimately been much better.