The year is 1998, and the Bill Clinton/Monica Lewinsky scandal is lighting up the airwaves. In a small New England town, a classics professor, Coleman Silk (Anthony Hopkins), has just had his career come to an abrupt end after allegedly uttering a racial epithet during class one day. Also reeling from the death of his wife, Silk finds comfort in the arms of Faunia (Nicole Kidman), a much younger woman who has seen her fair share of hell in her lifetime. As the two try to figure out a relationship with each other, Silk’s friend, Nathan Zuckerman (Gary Sinise) decides to research Silk’s past, and finds out that the professor denounced his African-American heritage long ago (seen in flashback to the 1950s), and has spent decades trying to overcome his web of lies and self-denial.
Based on the intricate novel by Philip Roth, “The Human Stain” examines the life that has been invented due to shame and fear. The film starts off with one huge whopper: that Anthony Hopkins is playing a light-skinned African-American. There’s no escaping the odd choice for the role by director Robert Benton (“Nobody’s Fool,” “Kramer Vs. Kramer”), but the film doesn’t make too big a deal out of it, letting actor Wentworth Miller (playing the younger Silk) bear the brunt of that subplot. Still, Hopkins is as controlled and defeated as he’s ever been, giving a fine performance up against the usual acting roadblock of miscasting.
“Stain” has lots to say about political correctness, and the very idea of integrity. The story uses the Monica Lewinsky scandal as a backdrop to Coleman Silk’s ordeal, drawing parallels on the vampire nature of P.C. thinking. “Stain” is really two movies in one (Coleman’s past and the present), with Benton attempting to connect the tales seamlessly, but often failing to do so. “Stain” is compelling, thoughtful drama, adapted with depth and ease by Nicholas Meyer (“Star Trek II”), but it does fall into melodramatic traps now and again.
A palatable sense of intimacy is what a veteran like Benton brings to “Stain.” The filmmaker takes time and measured effort in trying to bring Coleman and Faunia together. I will be the first to admit that this pairing is an unusual one. It bends the limits of disbelief even further with a rare unkind performance from Nicole Kidman that doesn’t quite make the grade in terms of believability. Cinematographer Jean-Yves Escoffer (who recently passed away) bathes the cast in gorgeous golden hues, and Benton instructs the lovers to speak in hushed tones, creating a dreamlike atmosphere for the story’s integral post-coital revelations of secrets and longing. “Human Stain” is an emotionally charged film, allowing each character to have a theatrical outburst or two, but the best moments are the ones when the pace is slowed down, the clothes are removed, and the inner fire of lost souls begins to burn. That’s when the audience learns just what “The Human Stain” is all about.Rating: B+