The Human Stain

There's a great new game to play to tell which films by Miramax the studio itself does not expect to do well. Go to their website ( and search amongst each of the films it is currently distributing in theaters. Some of the films have no website associated with them. Presumably, this means that Miramax does not want to pony up the cost of advertising, with a likely reason being the film is stinker, so why bother? One could argue that a lack of a site may cause mean less awareness for the film, which in turn hurts it at the box office. Whatever. The Human Stain has no website. Neither do other recent quality works like Duplex and Buffalo Soldiers. The Human Stain suffers from some serious miscasting to an adaptation of a work that is probably better suited in the form of a novel. The novel, by Pulitzer Prize-winner Philip Roth is a difficult one to adapt.

To begin with, screenwriter Nicholas Meyer (The Prince of Egypt, The Informant) make no secret of an important element of the plot, that Coleman Silk (Anthony Hopkins, Red Dragon, Bad Company), distinguished professor and academic, is a light-skinned African-American. This is all the more ironic when he is accused of racism, for calling two absent students "spooks," not knowing that they were African-American. In short order, he loses his job, his wife dies, and his life is a shambles. Then he meets Faunia Farely (Nicole Kidman, The Hours, Birthday Girl) and begins a torrid relationship with this woman who is from a world completely different that Coleman's. She works as a janitor at Coleman's old college, has a violent ex-husband (Ed Harris, Radio, Masked and Anonymous) and lost her children in a fire. Coleman also meets author Nathan Zuckerman (Gary Sinise, Made-Up, Impostor), currently enjoying some quality alone time. Zuckerman is a recurring character in Roth's novel, and also serves as something of a mouthpiece for Roth.

The Human Stain is partially a statement on what people keep hidden. The film takes place in the late 90s at the time of the Lewinsky-Clinton affair. In the words of Roth, it was akin to a lull period in America, after the Cold War and before the horrors of terrorism, when America could afford to be distracted by lesser things. Coleman hides his ethnicity, and director Robert Benton (Twilight, Nobody's Fool) is using the story to show why. There are frequent flashbacks to a younger Coleman (Wentworth Miller, Underworld) trying to reconcile his skin-color with his race. Something happened in Coleman's life, and both stories eventually move toward uncovering what exactly this was.

Hopkins as an African-American is not believable, even accounting for the fact that one needs suspend their belief for the duration of the film. He speaks with his English accent, has the wrong kind of hair, and doesn't really resemble Miller, who seems only a tad more plausible. This is forgivable, given Hopkins' ability to channel fear and hesitation. His Silk is a broken man trying to find something to grasp onto, and Hopkins' performance almost makes up for his laughable role. The same goes for Kidman, who does not come off as a credible janitor. She is just too beautiful of an actress. However, like Hopkins, Kidman's Faunia is broken woman seeking something, anything.

Zuckerman is also wallowing in misery, and it is his friendship with Silk that begins to draw him back into the world. Silk wants Zuckerman to write a novel about his experiences so that they world may know what happens when political correctness goes awry, but he will still not reveal his ethnicity. It seems a simple matter; one that would stop the circus surrounding his firing. So one watches The Human Stain expecting Benton and Meyer to come up with some marvelous revelation that explains why Silk doesn't simply tell. It comes, and it is somewhat of a letdown. There is so much going on in this film, yet nothing happens. Benton is trying to do too many things, and in doing so stretches the story too thin. There are some great performances by Hopkins, Kidman, Sinise, and Harris, but more than that they need a purpose for acting, something that The Human Stain does not provide.

Mongoose Rates It: Not That Good.
1 hour, 46 minutes, Rated R for language and sexuality/nudity.

Back to Movies