- The Washington Times - Thursday, October 30, 2003

“The Human Stain,” directed by Robert Benton from a screenplay by Nicholas Meyer, is overly faithful to Philip Roth’s sometimes unwieldy novel. At the same time, the movie manages to derive considerable pathos from the source material’s saving grace, the flashback story of protagonist Coleman Silk’s painful family and racial estrangement some 50 years before the narrative present.

The main story takes place in the late 1990s, when Silk is portrayed by Anthony Hopkins as a 70-ish classics professor, residing near the New England college, Athena, he once adorned. We encounter him as he suffers back-to-back blows: a professional scandal and the death of his wife.

The scandal, which never becomes a major plot element, revolves around a baseless accusation of racism by a pair of truant students. Retirement and solitude eventually make Silk susceptible to a love affair with a much younger woman, Faunia Farely, portrayed by Nicole Kidman. A campus custodian, Faunia is stalked by a tragic past and a vindictive ex, Lester, effectively embodied by Ed Harris, doing a fundamentally bogus reprise of that vintage stereotype of the 1970s, the psycho Vietnam vet.

The major conceptual stumbling block with the material is that the flashbacks dealing with Coleman’s problematic youth overshadow the main plot, which fails to convince you that the belated romance with Faunia is a redemptive yet fragile thing of beauty.

An earlier, sabotaged, love affair is depicted in the flashbacks, and this recollection of a lost love does make a stirring impression, thanks partly to the extraordinary young actors Wentworth Miller and Jacinda Barrett.

They seem to authenticate the romance with passionate immediacy and vulnerability. In addition, the racial ambiguity concealed in Coleman — he’s a vintage “passer,” a light-skinned black man who decided to abandon his family and heritage decades earlier — is validated by the presence of Mr. Miller in a way that it never is by the prestigious Mr. Hopkins.

It never enters your mind that the older Coleman Silk is anything but white. The young Coleman is handsomely and intensely borderline; Mr. Miller combines a magnetic camera presence with a seemingly perfect embodiment of the emotional conflicts that have marked Coleman, the self-made changeling.

In the Roth novel, the scholarly young Coleman was a part-time boxer, a potential Golden Boy of East Orange, N.J. In the movie, this dimension is of far less interest than Mr. Miller’s projection of Coleman’s amorous prowess while seducing a sweet and profoundly smitten coed named Steena, played by Miss Barrett, yet another talented Australian who can pass for American without arousing the slightest suspicion.

The love scenes between the young leads are breathtaking, and their rapture sets us up for the exquisite cruelty of Coleman’s betrayal, when he escorts Steena to a visit with his mother, played by Anna Deavere Smith, without informing Steena of his racial background. It’s Miss Barrett who soars in your estimation during this remarkable sequence and its aftermath. Steena bravely sustains polite conversation with Mrs. Silk while struggling against the shock and heartbreak of being deceived by the young man she loves.

It’s so easy to be drawn into the intimacy of this affair — and young Coleman’s uneasy relationship with his upstanding parents, admirably played by Miss Smith and Harry Lennix — that you begin to wish the story would remain in flashback. Unfortunately, there’s always a return to the woes of Coleman and Faunia, whose character seems to hypnotize Mr. Benton into reveries of forlorn pantomime and dithering that stop the movie in its tracks.

A very uneven example of polemical tear-jerking, “The Human Stain” (Think of it as a euphemism for original sin) tends to sleepwalk in the present and reawaken poignantly when evoking a strange turning point in the past. Nevertheless, you’ll probably want to remember that you were on hand to witness the breakthrough performances of Wentworth Miller and Jacinda Barrett, even if their impact made things a bit dismal for Anthony Hopkins and Nicole Kidman.

**1/2

TITLE: “The Human Stain”

RATING: R (Occasional profanity, sexual candor, morbidity and graphic violence; episodes about racial identity and conflict; sustained nudity in one romantic episode)

CREDITS: Directed by Robert Benton. Screenplay by Nicholas Meyer, based on the novel by Philip Roth. Cinematography by Jean-Yves Escoffier. Production design by David Gropman. Costume design by Rita Ryack. Editing by Christopher Tellefsen. Music by Rachel Portman.

RUNNING TIME: 104 minutes

MAXIMUM RATING: FOUR STARS

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