Would President Clinton, back when there were initial hints that he had an extramarital affair with a certain intern, been better off being straightforward and honest rather than evasive? Well, perhaps not, but one film that takes the approach that keeping secrets is not the best policy is “”The Human Stain””, adapted from the Phillip Roth novel.
This movie, whose story starts out in 1998, uses this Clinton scandal as a current events backdrop to the exploits of its main characters, whose covering up of the truth comes back to haunt them in sometimes ironic ways.At the beginning of the flick, there appears to be an extremely serious car accident, set in the middle of winter. From there the story shifts into flashback mode—something that happens often in “”The Human Stain””—whereby it is 1998 and narrator Nathan Zuckerman (Gary Sinise) introduces the character of Coleman Silk (Anthony Hopkins), a Dean/Professor at Athena College. While teaching his class on ancient texts, with a focus on Achilles, Prof. Silk inadvertently uses a racial slur to refer to two absent African-American students, placing him in such a serious disciplinary status that he decides to quit.Right after he leaves his teaching position, Silk’s wife Iris (Phyllis Newman) passes away, and so he’s is both lonely and jobless. After six months, he visits Zuckerman, a writer who has become reclusive since overcoming cancer and is now suffering a creativity block. Silk figures that he has a story to help Nathan out of his rut, only it’s the former of the two who winds up writing it: the ‘true’ story of how the College went after Coleman but wound up ‘murdering’ his wife instead.As time passes, Nathan teaches the former professor gin rummy in addition to helping him with his book, and they soon become good friends. During this period, Silk becomes fast friends…ok, much more than friends, with the much younger Faunia Farely (Nicole Kidman), who works at a dairy farm and as a janitor at both Athena and the local post office. She puts on a strong front, saying that she doesn’t believe in sympathy and acting like sex is all that matters between the two of them, but it soon becomes clear that she is running from a past of abuse from others and also from herself.As the romantic relationship between these two diverse individuals blossoms, a scandal is created. It seems to mirror the Clinton scandal, which is again occurring at this time and keeps popping up in the various media during this film. Many believe that the former academic Coleman is exploiting the young woman for sex, and then her really seriously unstable ex-husband Lester (a haggard-looking Ed Harris) comes around…and he’s less than happy with Faunia hooking up with another guy. During this tumultuous time, Silk reflects often on his early life, specifically the 1940s, when he was growing up in East Orange, NJ and then attended college in New York City. He was a very good boxer, but had to weigh between pursuing an athletic career or following more studious pursuits. It’s these scenes that come across as the strongest as the young Coleman forces himself into a role, something that unintentionally causes a negative situation in the present. This film features a virtual all-star line-up of actors, yet it is some of the lesser known players who stand out. Hopkins does a fair job as Coleman Silk, but he spends much time quietly brooding–something he does in many of his films, and his strongest moments come early on when his character challenges the college faculty over their accusations towards him. Kidman is also decent in portraying a woman who starts out with a tough exterior but gradually reveals, especially with her ex’s arrival, an extremely troubled emotional background. One of the actors who does really stand out is Ed Harris who, as Lester Farley, ranges from psychotic to quietly reflective, the latter of which comes across during an ice-fishing scene late in the movie (his physical appearance in the film also helps for the role). The other really effective cast members are those in the flashback scenes, including–but not limited to–Wentworth Miller as young Coleman, and ex-Real World London -er turned actress Jacinda Barrett, who is Coleman’s love interest Steena Paulsson (she performs well as the Midwestern girl, and is, um, easy on the eyes). Anna Deavere Smith, who has done much great work on the stage, also gives a praiseworthy performance in this film. The real highlight of “”The Human Stain”” is not in its actors’ abilities but rather in its topic. Some people try to hide their true nature, be it something cultural/ethnic or their personality traits, to the point where they are living a lie. The consequences of this are revealed in the film with almost Shakespearian tragic results–appropriate I suppose since Hopkins seems to have a fondness for Shakespeare. In regards to that Clinton reference above–no the movie’s title does not refer to the intern’s dress–but a stain on one’s character, and the theme seems to suggest that the President would have been better off just coming out about his affair right away rather than the whole avoiding the issue thing (that might not have been the case given the political climate…but that’s another story). For the characters in the flick, the “”stain”” is both physical, something like a scar on the wrist, or something internal like straying from one’s roots and family, or having serious emotional–even suicidal–thoughts. Another focus is the subject of murder, whether it be the direct kind, or the indirect kind, such as when Silk suggests the school faculty “”murdered”” his wife through their pursuit of disciplinary justice, or whether the young Silk committed “”murder”” himself…hmmmm. The acting among the leads is fair–much better among the supporting cast, and the film is undercut with constant time-shifting, such as the jump from the beginning accident scene to about a year earlier to the 1940s and back to the 1990s again. It would also have been nice to see more of other characters’ issues, whether it’s Zuckerman (Sinise) hiding from his own mortality, or Harris’ character and his experiences in Vietnam. The real strength of “”The Human Stain””, again, is its focus on identity and one’s background, and the extreme lengths some go to conceal this identity..even if it’s of the physical variety. Final Grade: B EM Movie Reviewby Andrew HaasPosted October 31, 2003