3 1/2stars (out of 4)
Anthony Hopkins and Nicole Kidman play doomed, outcast lovers in director Robert Benton's "The Human Stain," and though they're an unlikely couple (even more so if you've read the Philip Roth novel), they're such superb actors that they pull you into the characters' private world, making you feel white-hot passion in New England winter.
Roth is an often scathing writer, and Benton is a much gentler filmmaker, but they share the same humane values. Benton's sheer warmth irradiates the tale - though "Stain," faithfully translated by writer Nicholas Meyer, is as mournful and angry as anything Roth has written. His story, an indictment of both the new puritanism and old American bigotries, begins in 1998 during the Bill Clinton-Monica Lewinsky scandal, moves restlessly back to the 1940s and forward to a desolate climax in 2000. All the while, the film shows us another leader who succumbs to sex and falls into disgrace: Hopkins, as famed 71-year-old New England classics professor and college dean Coleman Silk.
Kidman plays his 34-year-old lover, Faunia Farley, a janitor at fictitious Athena College and the ex-wife of moody Vietnam vet Lester Farley (Ed Harris). The story is built around that odd triangle, but it's also about Coleman's unfair fall from grace and the world of lies finally revealed to the narrator, novelist Nathan Zuckerman (Gary Sinise), a continuing character of Roth's. Nathan listens as Coleman reveals his woes: censured by his colleagues on a trumped-up charge of racism, widowed when his wife Iris (Phyllis Newman) suffers a heart attack, and condemned by his own rage, which leads him to self-exile.
"Stain" soon becomes a scathing indictment of political correctness and various bigotries, as the magnitude and irony of the injustice against Coleman become crystal-clear. In the book they're even clearer, but the movie sharply reduces the role of Coleman's French feminist nemesis, professor Delphine Roux (Mimi Kuzyk), the woman who gets him fired. He's still a victim more of academic jealousy and intellectual fashion than morality or justice - a jealousy and fashion which, in his genteel academic world, he can't escape.
Nathan's sympathy for the disgraced academic keeps growing as we learn, in flashback sections, how Coleman got to Athena, and of his past as "Silky" Silk, '40s college student, lothario and pro boxer. When the August-December romance with Faunia starts, spurred by social isolation and Viagra, threatened by gossip and Lester's stalking, it's a sensual consolation for this embittered man. But the film has another heart as well: Coleman's old secret, which is crucial but unrevealable for this review.
Benton, who wrote "Bonnie and Clyde," is a master of bedrock Americana and a sympathetic observer of rebels and outlaws. Like his best work as director ("Kramer vs. Kramer," "Places in the Heart," "Nobody's Fool"), "The Human Stain" is superbly crafted in all departments. It's the sort of movie - intelligent, humane, well-acted and based on rich source material - that we don't get often enough and therefore sometimes don't appreciate enough. But if the main complaints you can make about a movie are that Kidman and Hopkins may be too beautiful or too British, respectively, we're perhaps guilty of critical bigotry. What matters here is that the filmmaking is so good and the issues and themes - from public racism to private brutality - so compelling.
What about casting? The choice of Hopkins seems questionable if you know Coleman's secret, but with his brooding Shakespearean presence, deep sadness and eloquence, he triumphs anyway. Faunia, a beleaguered, tough, unschooled woman, is played by Kidman with no false noses, and she seems so lovely that it's hard to accept her as a janitor, or not to imagine all of Athena lining up at her door. But is that really a defect? Movie actors are almost always better-looking than their real-life counterparts, never more so than in the Ingmar Bergman films that seem to have inspired Benton here. And Kidman's rare beauty and shining empathy take us inside Coleman's head. Empathy is essential here; Hopkins and Sinise have plenty as well.
Harris has more, though his character has none. Alone among the lead quartet, he's perfectly cast - and so brilliant, he chills you to the bone.
"The Human Stain" has those qualities we often want but rarely see in our films: intelligence and ambition, decency and humanity, poetry and pity, fire and ice. Watch it and weep.
"The Human Stain"
Directed by Robert Benton; written by Nicholas Meyer, based on the novel by Philip Roth; photographed by Jean Yves Escoffier; edited by Christopher Tellefsen; production designed by David Gropman; music by Rachel Portman; produced by Tom Rosenberg, Gary Lucchesi, Scott Steindorff. A Miramax Pictures release; opens Friday, Oct. 31. Running time: 1:46. MPAA rating: R (language, sensuality and violence).
Coleman Silk - Anthony Hopkins
Faunia Farley - Nicole Kidman
Lester Farley - Ed Harris
Nathan Zuckerman - Gary Sinise
Young Coleman Silk - Wentworth Miller
Steena Paulsson - Jacinda Barrett
Nelson Primus - Clark Gregg
Iris Silk - Phyllis Newman