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Not passing for Roth 

A review of The Human Stain

click to enlarge Nicole Kidman as the too-gorgeous Faunia Farley.
  • Nicole Kidman as the too-gorgeous Faunia Farley.

The Human Stain (R)
Miramax

Director Robert Benton (Kramer vs. Kramer, Places in the Heart) has taken Philip Roth's best-selling novel and diluted it of its fiery political potency. He hasn't made a bad film, just one that feels less like an impassioned, polemical and richly layered Roth novel and more like a "race 'n' sex" themed Land's End catalog.

Coleman Silk (Anthony Hopkins) is the firebrand English department head of a snooty Massachusetts liberal arts college. In the summer of 1998, when a piece of soiled Gap apparel fueled a national moralizing frenzy, Silk is accused of making a racially insensitive remark about two absent students. Rather than face an ugly inquisition, he resigns in protest. Upon hearing the news, his wife promptly suffers a heart attack and dies.

The film opens with an early morning drive down a snowy New England road. Silk quietly driving with his lover Faunia Farley (Nicole Kidman) asleep on his arm. And then, suddenly and quietly, the car swerves into an icy lake. It's an accident we're led to believe is anything but.

Roth's novel is rooted in a tragic irony that the man who's run out of his career and alienated from his family and society on racism charges is, in fact, a light-skinned African-American who has been "passing" for over 40 years.

It's a secret he's shared with no one, not even his wife -- until he meets Farley, a mysterious working-class loner who scrapes by as a janitor and milkmaid. The two share no small amount of buried secrets and, of course, sex. Though she has few possessions, Farley has a violent and mentally ill ex-husband, (Ed Harris) who's bent on killing her.

As the story unfolds, we learn that Silk has suffered more than his share of the petty racism he's been accused of. Through flashbacks to his childhood in Depression-era Newark, N.J., we learn that the young Silk (played with minimal competency by Wentworth Miller) was a talented boxer and a star student. While Silk's white boxing coach advises him not to reveal his "color" in order to gain access to the state university, his stern father has already written his life's itinerary: A black college followed by black medical school -- the life his father never had, and, given the era's impenetrable color line, arguably the most viable.

Blinded by an almost implausibly nihilistic individualism, Silk decides to take advantage of his hue, shake off the burden of race and in doing so, turns his back on his family. The impetus for this unthinkable apostasy is his romance with a white woman who he brings home (without telling her he's black). Needless to say, the relationship ends badly and young Silk's perception of race as an identity prison is a fait accompli.

In a scene reminiscent of Douglas Sirk's Imitation of Life, Coleman informs his mother (Anna Deavere Smith) he's going to go white. It's a heartbreaking moment, which neither the script nor Miller's performance ever justifies on an emotional level.

Speaking of performances, Kidman's is almost flawless, but her looks are distractingly out of sync with her character's hard-knocks life. No matter how much flannel she adorns, no matter how non-salon fresh her hair, she's just too exquisite to be viable.

While we're nitpicking, Hopkins' mid-Atlantic accent is entirely too patrician for any Jersey boy. This is Hollywood's typical gaffe when covering the academy, the unshakable conviction that today's ivory tower inhabitants are all Harold Bloom clones.

In typical Roth fashion, the reclusive writer Nathan Zuckerman (Gary Sinise) serves as a surrogate narrator and a confidant to Coleman Silk. Where this strategy works wonderfully in Roth's novels, it's largely superfluous on screen with the exception of a charming man-on-man slow dance scene.

Without Roth's furious digressions, the script's symmetry is almost maddening. All plot points and themes are neatly wrapped in a bow. It's too neat, too trite, too lacking Roth's savage condemnation of a nation's political and sexual morality gone mad.

-- John Dicker

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  • A review of The Human Stain

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