Anthony Hopkins has played Hitler, Picasso, Othello, Nixon, John Quincy Adams, and Yitzhak Rabin. His leading-man qualities are broadcast in his cinder-block head, wine-cask chest, iceberg eyes, and suggestion of brute force held in reserve while he delivers clipped or murmured dialogue flecked with a Welsh accent. He’s a great pillar of a star.
Nicole Kidman has played a French courtesan, Russian immigrant, Depression-era gangster’s moll, Henry James heroine, ghost, and Virginia Woolf. Her leading-lady qualities are represented in her seaweed-wild hair, satin-ribbon arms, articulated back, and ability to extend or retract the force field of her beauty (and her Australian speech patterns) in service to a director she believes in. She’s a great sylph of a star.
The two are splendid, protean specimens – who are exactly the wrong size for The Human Stain, which arrives garlanded with prestige like holiday pine-bough swags on Martha Stewart’s staircase. For starters, the sprawling novel is honors-project-daunting to adapt. The third in Philip Roth’s trilogy of late-period masterworks, the book tells the story of Coleman Silk (played on screen by Hopkins), an esteemed college dean who, in his autumnal years, is shocked into stocktaking honesty by two cataclysmic events. The first is a false accusation of racism, the damage from which (during the high-dudgeon years of the Clinton-Lewinsky scandal) extends to the destruction of Silk’s career and the death of his wife from a brain aneurysm.
The second is the surprise gift of erotic passion and, finally, love the old man receives from Faunia Farley (Kidman), a young local woman whose blue-collar existence – she mucks barns, cleans campus bathrooms, works in the town post office – obscures the more complicated hardships of her life in proximity to her violent ex-husband, Lester (Ed Harris). Characteristically, the narrative is filtered through the perspective of Roth’s fictional alter ego, Nathan Zuckerman (here so stripped of any ethnic identification that he’s played by Gary Sinise), a famous writer with his own disconnected emotional wiring whom Silk initially enlists to write an account of his wounds in academe.
In Roth’s novel, past and present jostle with the kind of virtuoso tension only the written word can sustain, and by the time the secret that Silk has guarded about himself all his life slips out, there’s a moment of real jolt to the revelation. But in the movie, directed by Robert Benton (”Nobody’s Fool”) from a speech-strung script by Nicholas Meyer (”Fatal Attraction”) and embellished by Rachel Portman’s score with the kind of well-bred, musing arpeggios that always portend serious drama in a cold climate, Silk’s identity bombshell never explodes: The truth is a fancy and arbitrary twist – a color detail – in this overbred literary adaptation. It arrives somewhat early in the plot, too, which is why there is no viewing pleasure squandered in discussing it here. Coleman Silk, a man who has ”passed” as white – and as one of the few Jewish professors on campus – is in fact a light-skinned African American who decided as a teenage amateur boxer in the 1940s to deny his racial identity for what he saw as a life of greater opportunities through self-invention.
Played in his youth with exciting believability by newcomer Wentworth Miller, young Silk is forceful in the pain of his psychic discomfort, especially when he brings home an unsuspecting white girlfriend (Jacinda Barrett) to meet his imposing mother (a striking turn by Anna Deavere Smith). So how does this simmering young man from the streets of East Orange, N.J., wrestle with homegrown demons to become…Anthony Hopkins, Commonwealth accent flying proudly, a taurine presence more likely to pass for covert cannibal than racial changeling? He doesn’t; Hopkins can’t pass for Silk. (Voice-over narration suggests that a graduate stint at Oxford turned him Welsh.)
And how, for that matter, does an emotionally battered rural cleaning lady retain such elegance of gesture, even when milking cows? Not believably. (In a speech that might explain the actress’ participation, Faunia describes an unhappy upper-class childhood rejected in favor of chain-smoked cigs and drab cardigans.)
”The Human Stain” is, contradictorily, drained of color by the spotlight turned on its charismatic leads. Between the labors of simplifying the story for the screen and accommodating the stardust of world-class actors, an essentially, uniquely American tragic hero and heroine are bleached of real American tragedy. In the end, indeed, it’s Harris’ crazed, Vietnam-scarred Lester, alternately raging and chillingly disconnected from the spreading ruin in which he has had a hand, who leaves a mark. Believable, condemnable, pitiable, and (as played by the vital actor) vulnerable, he alone is the kind of ordinary-size stained human I think Roth had in mind in every sentence.