The Human Stain

on October 31, 2003 by Kevin Courrier
In the novel "The Human Stain," author Philip Roth set out to chronicle what he called "the persecuting spirit" set loose in America during the summer of 1998. Citizens then were caught up in the impeachment proceedings of President Clinton over his affair with Monica Lewinsky. "The Human Stain" is about Coleman Silk, an aging New England classics professor who is forced to retire when his colleagues claim that he uttered a racist remark in the classroom. Although the charge is a lie, Roth brilliantly uncovers a larger deception about Coleman Silk and the people who set out to persecute him. A passionate and boldly provocative book, "The Human Stain" examines with sharp precision the cost of keeping secrets.

While Robert Benton's film adaptation, from Nicolas Meyer's script, is a faithful recreation of Roth's powerful polemic, the movie isn't powerful, or passionate. "The Human Stain" is bland and dull rather than disturbing. Robert Benton ("Kramer vs. Kramer," "Places in the Heart") brings an air of intelligence and sensitivity to the material, but he's far too tasteful a director to bring out the turbulent forces within it.Anthony Hopkins, playing Silk, gives a robust performance but--like in "Nixon"--he doesn't seem believably American. Nicole Kidman in the role of Faunia, the emotionally scarred younger woman in Silk's life, fares much better, even if her character has been made less enigmatic than in the novel. Ed Harris as Faunia's violent ex-husband is perfectly cast, but the role is no more than a cameo part.

Where Roth revealed a vast and complex web of deceit that rendered Coleman Silk a tragic figure in the novel, Robert Benton instead strips away the complexity and turns Coleman into a victim. "The Human Stain" is so simplified that it never gets under your skin. Starring Anthony Hopkins, Nicole Kidman, Gary Sinese and Ed Harris. Directed by Robert Benton. Written by Nicolas Meyer. Produced by Tom Rosenberg, Gary Lucchesi and Scott Steindorff. A Miramax release. Drama. Rated R for language and sexuality/nudity. Running time: 106 min

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