The Human Stain

A consummate study in tedium further hindered by some bizarre casting.

Released in 2003, certified UK-18. Reviewed on 25 Jan 2004 by Scott Morris
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Winter, in theOneliner's neck of the woods at any rate, is a bleak time. Cold, windy, snowy, rainy, dark and miserable, it's a time when distractions are craved from the sheer horror of it all. Why it has been deemed an acceptable time to foist off yet another of the dullest films we've had the misfortune to suffer through is a mystery to us, but The Human Stain joins Girl with a Pearl Earring in our hall of tedium.

There is a short form of this review, and it runs thusly - 'By the beard of Wotan, avoid this entertainment vacuum as though your very sanity doth depend on it'. The main issue with writing about something so dull is that by extension the review becomes dull, as though it were some transmittable disease that ruins and annoys in equal measure. Regardless, I shall carry on and the brave may follow.

Coleman Silk (Anthony Hopkins) is one of the foremost classics professors in the United States. Or rather he was, until a wayward comment is wilfully misinterpreted as racism. Sacked by a board he for the most part hired, the stress proves to difficult for Silk's wife to handle, dropping dead of an embolism. Not a good day, all told. We skip forward a little, a recurring theme with this film's unhealthy obsession with the cinematographers technique du jour the non-linear narrative, and we find Silk barging in uninvited on reclusive author Nathan Zuckerman (Gary Sinise, whose character also narrates the story) urging him to write the story of his sacking and displaying a mildly perturbing paranoia.

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While Zuckerman isn't too keen on the idea or Silk's ramblings, a few games of gin rummy later and they become fast friends. Arguably this helps Zuckerman more than Silk, throwing off his emotional baggage like an overloaded Buckeroo™. Silk soon embarks on a torrid affair with dairy worker / post office worker / University janitor Faunia Farley (Nicole Kidman). Faunia is one of those no nonsense, determined, confrontational surly types using this as a defence to hide her troubled past with abusive and psychotic ex-husband, Vietnam scarred vet Lester (Ed Harris).

Silk has a storied past too, and damned if we don't get flashbacks to it. This is perhaps a mild spoiler, although 'spoil' is a relative term. The big secret alluded to in the trailers concerns the Silk's heritage, and it's mildly interesting to note that rather than being of the Jewish persuasion as he's presented so far, he's African American. Well, of mixed race at least, but his parents are most certainly of a darker skin tone than the young Silk, played by Wentworth Miller.

He has his own problems with identity in a world still rife with racism and all the fun of the fair that nasty concept brings. He has an unusual option for coping as his skin is light enough to pass for a Caucasian (wherever Caucasia is. Northern Russia, I think) although his family is understandably upset at eventually being disowned to hide his 'terrible' secret, as the promo blurb bizarrely claims it. Miller provides one of the more tolerable performances in this redundant tale, although it throws up some interesting questions that it doesn't bother answering.

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The problem with casting younger versions of actors, or indeed older versions, is that a vague degree of similarity is required for it to work. Miller and Hopkins look like polar opposites, not the same person. Some slight commonality in their facial structure other than 'number of eyes, ears and nostrils' would not only have been nice, it's vital. In a film where the appearance of the characters is at least as important as their personality for the purpose of the plot, this is a major, major failing. It gives the film a veneer of unbelievability that ruins any hope of being truly or even vaguely affecting.

It's not as if Hopkins has delivered the kind of blistering performance that no-one else could replicate. Joining the rest of the cast present in the modern time frame he dials in a lacklustre performance, only showing a few slight glimmers of talent and exuberance. Sinise is adequate, Harris becomes the true hero of the piece as he threatens to kill Silk and Faunia, putting us out of our misery. Kidman's foul mouthed bravado is utterly undermined by the spoilt ego-inflated Princess caricature she's become of late, which makes her working class hero act mildly insulting.

I've tried to avoid the simple fact for much of the review but there's just one important point we must stress, this film is really rather dull. A veritable tapestry of tedium woven from many faceted strands of individual stultification forming a blanket of boredom cosying over the proceedings with a warming dreariness that settles to a nice slumber inducing sensation. It's rather like Russian dolls of boredom, each larger humdrum layer revealing a smaller but no less exquisitely formed monotony, or some dread Kinder Surprise where the toy is the Labour party manifesto. In the final analysis, it doesn't really matter too much what the rest of the film does, although God knows it doesn't do a lot to endear itself to anyone, the simple facts of the matter is that it's utterly turgid and, if you'll pardon the continued repetition of the phrase, boring.

Were I in the business of passing quantifiable judgements, I'd award this 1/5 Space Otters.

Robert Benton
Cast list:
Anthony Hopkins (Coleman Silk)
Nicole Kidman (Faunia Farley)
Ed Harris (Lester Farley)
Gary Sinise (Nathan Zuckerman)
Wentworth Miller (Young Coleman Silk)
Jacinda Barrett (Steena Paulsson)
Harry J. Lennix (Mr. Silk)
Clark Gregg (Nelson Primus)
Anna Deavere Smith (Mrs. Silk)
Lizan Mitchell (Ernestine)
Kerry Washington (Ellie)
Phyllis Newman (Iris Silk)