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Nichole Kidman as Faunia Farely in The Human Stain. (courtesy photo)

'The Human Stain' falls short of translating Big Literature to the Big Screen

In a story about scandalous sex, concealed heritage, and die-hard vanity, a title like The Human Stain is easy to understand. In the case of this tale's cinematic adaptation, though, the most distracting stain is one left by the sticky prestige dripping off the project: Among the lead cast and crew, the underachievers are the ones who have merely been nominated for Academy Awards; and the novel of the same name is generally considered a major achievement by one of America's greatest authors. When that kind of talent goes into a movie that will almost certainly fail to win anything this awards season, it's time to visit the dry cleaners.

It isn't that the film fails to involve the viewer, and to wrap weighty themes up into its intrigue. Coleman Silk (Hopkins), an aging classics professor, has been booted from the university he helped rejuvenate because an innocent remark was misconstrued as racism. The professor has a secret weapon against such charges - he is from an African-American family, though his light skin allows him to pass for Jewish - but he refuses to expose his past. His wife, shocked at the unjust end to Silk's distinguished career, dies upon hearing the news, leaving Silk to seek redress in literature; he introduces himself to Nathan Zuckerman and asks the writer to tell his tale.

Silk tumbles into an affair with a woman from another world. Young, uneducated, and far too sexy for a man of Silk's standing, Faunia Farely (Kidman) is a walking Viagra tablet with dark secrets and a volatile estranged husband. Silk is a fool to get involved with her, but who wouldn't be a fool for Faunia, and be proud of it?

The Human Stain

Dir. Robert Benton; writ. Philip Roth (novel), Nicholas Meyer; feat. Anthony Hopkins, Nicole Kidman, Ed Harris, Gary Sinise, Wentworth Miller, Anna Deavere Smith (R)
Like the eloquent but aging man it portrays, director Robert Benton's film alternates between grace and sluggishness. At points, the filmmaker's smooth elisions are seductive. Elsewhere, though, particularly in long flashback sequences, we're held up in a backstory that hinders our involvement in the main drama.

As talented as Benton is with actors, he is as undone by his attraction to talent as Silk is by his lust. The very English Hopkins is a ridiculous choice to play an African-American pretending to be Jewish. Viewers striving to buy the illusion will be undone by the casting of Wentworth Miller, who bears no resemblance to Hopkins, as the young Silk. Kidman is also miscast, albeit less extremely.

A healthy suspension of disbelief could overcome any one of the obstacles here, but the combined weight of them is too much to bear. It is to Benton's and screenwriter Nicholas Meyer's credit that they don't turn Roth's book into a thriller, but shifting the emphasis slightly to the threat presented by Faunia's husband might have helped divert attention from viewers' lingering doubts.

Of course, that would have betrayed most of what the book has to offer. And for a Big Movie with Big Actors interpreting Big Literature, that just won't do. Like its lead character, The Human Stain just has too much to conceal. •

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