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The Human Stain

December 2, 2014

The Human Stain (2003)
Director: Robert Benton
Actors: Anthony Hopkins, Nicole Kidman, Wentworth Miller

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Synopsis: Coleman Silk (Anthony Hopkins), an eminent Classics professor at a top US college, resigns his post after being accused of using a racial epithet against two absent students. While planning to document his disgust at the decision by writing a book with local author, Nathan Zuckerman (Gary Sinise), Silk embarks on an affair with lower-class farm hand, Faunia (Nicole Kidman), while remembering how he was able to hide the fact that he grew up as a young black man…

Review: The Human Stain bears all the scars and stretch marks of a work that has tried to condense the necessarily literary elements of an esteemed novel (characters, plotting and backstory galore) into a feature film format. The plus-side is that one can clearly detect the presence of a probing intellect in the interesting interplay of themes (racial and class prejudice being the two main areas of discourse), and the central construct of slowly revealing through reminiscence that Coleman actually grew up as a (light-skinned) black man is unquestionably as fascinating and fertile a development as presumably it must have appeared in written form. In fact, director Robert Benton actually does a fine job of interlinking Coleman’s present day dilemmas as echo of his youthful sacrifice-cum-metamorphosis through the use of rhythmic and elegiac flashbacks.

Where the adaptation fares less well is in the present-day plotting and genre ingredients it throws into its already rich mix of a literary pudding. Giving Coleman’s younger girlfriend, Faunia, her own traumatic subplot of deceased children and an abusive ex-husband, must have been a much more organic development on page, but on screen, against the larger context of Coleman’s story and racial secret, it has the effect of (if you’ll excuse the cooking metaphor a touch longer) over-egging the pudding. Also, presumably there are commercial and industrial reasons for casting Nicole Kidman and Ed Harris as the white-trash girlfriend and ex-husband respectively, but their presence and earnest Method willingness to over-demonstrate their characters’ blue-collar world-weariness further disavows the contemporary section of the Coleman story. (December 2014)

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