Movie Review: ‘The Human Stain’

Seeing Through Stained Glass
By Scott Holleran

With a strenuous plot based on a Philip Roth novel, an unlikely cast and an uninviting title, director Robert Benton’s The Human Stain, written by Nicholas Meyer, is unexpectedly engrossing. The 71-year-old Robert Benton (Kramer Vs. Kramer, Places in the Heart, Nobody’s Fool), who makes about three pictures a decade, has dramatized a quietly triumphant tale, and the result is mesmerizing.

Beginning with a winter car accident, The Human Stain tells the story of Coleman Silk (Anthony Hopkins), a literature professor with a haunted past. Shortly after Coleman is wrongly accused of racism, his loyal wife dies of an embolism and his life is irrevocably changed. Stung by the charges, with little left to lose, Coleman is drawn to a solitary writer named Nathan (Gary Sinise) and to a plain, 34-year-old janitor at the university named Faunia, played by Nicole Kidman in a breakthrough performance.

Mr. Benton uses Meyer’s script to peel each plot layer thoroughly. With Coleman and Faunia entwined in tragic, violent pasts, they meet on a cold day when Faunia’s car breaks down, and he offers her a ride home. She matter-of-factly explains that she rents a room from “a couple of dykes” who live on a farm, and that she milks the cows when she’s not mopping floors at the university. They chat, he pulls up to her home, she lingers, invites him in for sex, he hesitates, and, finally, it happens. The stuffy intellectual and the raunchy working-class woman warm each other up—that’s that.

Only that isn’t quite that, and it’s much more involving. There’s the danger posed by an abusive ex-husband named Lester (Ed Harris), a Vietnam vet, and there is that which has been concealed. Against one’s better judgment, one is drawn to Coleman’s apparently destructive behavior: why would an embattled, recently widowed professor risk scandal by having an affair with a world-weary woman?

It isn’t easy to make an audience care about an old man and a damaged, young woman with a menacing ex-husband, and there is a false sense of reality in gauzy flashbacks of Coleman’s promising youth. But whatever feels fake about Coleman’s backstory is no match for Mr. Benton’s direction, Meyer’s screenplay, top production values and a score by Rachel Portman that heightens the search for a man’s soul.

With writer Nathan bearing witness, what might have been an indulgence in self-pity becomes a moving display of real intimacy in friendship and romance. Coleman is neither lecherous nor powerless in the presence of the feline Faunia and theirs is an even trade that unfolds softly and powerfully. Together, Hopkins’ restrained Coleman and Kidman’s wounded Faunia are erotic, intense and joyful. They’ve never been better.

Robert Benton brilliantly intertwines the past, recent past and the present as a logical progression of Coleman’s troubled story, with Faunia as his reward and with the troubled, struggling writer as his beneficiary. The Human Stain, contrary to its title, is a poetic, psychological puzzle solved as an homage to that which ought to remain unblemished.

Posted October 2003 on Box Office Mojo