Movies

All Too Human

The perils of filming Philip Roth.

Stain on Roth's narrative
Stain on Roth’s narrative

Philip Roth’s later novels are practically the antithesis of mainstream American cinema: The narrator doesn’t seem to be telling a story so much as teasing one out of his own labyrinthine musings—churning thought before our eyes into narrative. It’s difficult to imagine a perfect compromise between the author’s voice and the language of the average studio film, but in The Human Stain (Miramax), director Robert Benton and screenwriter Nicholas Meyer have found what seems to me to be the exact midway point between the two—and thereby shown what an unsatisfying place that is to be.

This is not to say that their work is dishonorable or that the film is difficult to sit through: TheHuman Stain is a much more vital movie than I’d been led to expect from its chilly reception at the Toronto Film Festival in September. From its first scene—in which a car driven by Coleman Silk (Anthony Hopkins) creeps along a snow-covered road with a sleeping Faunia Farley (Nicole Kidman) beside him, then swerves into a frozen lake when a pickup truck unaccountably moves into its path—the action carries a powerful sense of loss. But the story barely makes thematic sense in Roth’s great but convoluted original. When laid out on screen in Benton’s stately, classical voice, its meanings are fatally elusive.

The Human Stain is the last of an informal trilogy—American Pastoral and I Married aCommunist are its siblings—with the aim of illuminating schisms in the national psyche through individual portraits of grief. The novel opens with a sardonic reference to President Clinton’s impeachment trial for lying about consensual sexual contact with Monica Lewinsky—and while this seems like a slender rod on which to hang a tragedy, it turns out to be rich with resonances. Roth—who’d been a target of tabloid ridicule after his break-up with actress Claire Bloom and hospitalization for depression and Halcion addiction—is using Clinton’s “stain” to explore the chasm between private and public morality.

It is, to be sure, a winding thread that leads from Bubba to Roth’s protagonist, Silk, a 70ish classics professor and dean of a small New England college who is driven from office when he refers to a couple of absent students—who have never shown up for his class—as “spooks,” and then learns that he has inadvertently uttered a racist epithet. But what seems at first like an anti-PC screed becomes denser and more elliptical when the narrator (Roth’s frequent alter ego Nathan Zuckerman) learns that Silk was not a Jew but a very light-skinned black man who’d successfully passed for white. (Roth was inspired by the life—and the posthumous exposure as African-American—of Anatole Broyard.)

The movie, like the novel, is a tortured weave: After the death of Silk’s wife, who has a heart attack in the course of rallying her husband’s defense, the ex-dean embarks on a tumultuous affair with a bitter and haunted custodial worker—a young woman whose baggage includes a violent ex-husband, a Vietnam vet who has never forgiven her for the deaths of the couple’s children. If all these threads—along with the tangential story of Zuckerman, driven to this quiet corner of New England after his latest divorce—seem oddly juxtaposed, well, they are. But as Zuckerman ruminates on the events of the novel, they somehow coalesce into a singular portrait of collective repression, of a culture that’s forever on the brink of insanity.

The movie coalesces into nothing: It’s one of those films that makes you say, “That was powerful. Now what the hell was it about?” The problems begin with Zuckerman, who is roughly Silk’s contemporary and understands too well the forces he was up against in the ‘40s and ‘50s, as he tried to find a place in white society. But Benton has unaccountably cast the 40ish Gary Sinise, who is little more than a pallid Horatio to Silk’s raging Hamlet.

It’s hard to think of more egregious miscasting than Anthony Hopkins as a closet black man and Nicole Kidman as a surly custodial worker. I was expecting the worst from Hopkins—he has lately been coasting on pure ham. But I’m bound to say he’s excellent. It’s a beautifully modulated performance, reined-in but simmering, his flab looking for all the world like clenched musculature. He seems physically different here, too: his neck thicker, his head more egglike. Is he a plausible Coleman Silk? Not quite, but if I didn’t make the leap into belief, I wasn’t constantly nagged by disbelief, either.

Kidman, on the other hand, is far too model-poised for Faunia, and her prole accent doesn’t help. (She’s supposed to be a former rich girl who ran away from an incestuous stepfather, but that gum-cracking demeanor is a neon sign for working class.) I giggled when I saw her milking cows with a few of those exquisite auburn ringlets in her face—but from moment to moment I liked watching her. And Benton does good work with the others. A tall, deep-voiced young actor named Wentworth Miller (he’s actually biracial) is superb as the young Silk, tentatively trying to craft a persona that will allow him to function in both black and white worlds. As the blond girl of Silk’s integrationist fantasies, Jacinda Barrett has a stunning scene in which she learns of his true heritage on the doorstep of his home and holds a frozen smile for hours.

The problem isn’t so much what’s on the screen but what’s off it—the sometimes vexing but always probing voice of the author, a man whose delusional projections tell us more about the national psyche than almost any author alive. Benton’s inescapably sane adaptation is proof that lucidity can sometimes be the greatest obfuscation.