This almost too-serious drama works on several levels, maybe one or two too many.
As a father, lover, and college professor I have had a life colored by the presence of young women, some of those liaisons fateful, all interesting. Anthony Hopkins as an aging college dean who resigns over his unfortunate use of the racially-charged word ?spooks? has an affair with a 34-year old former blue blood, now trailer-trash janitress, played by Nicole Kidman. Ed Harris as the disaffected former husband and crazed Nam vet makes sure their romance is troubled.
This almost too-serious drama works on several levels, maybe one or two too many. When Kidman calls a caged bird, ?A crow that doesn?t know how to be a crow,? I thought the film itself could not figure out where it wanted to alight, in racism, sex, or disloyalty? Based on Philip Roth?s novel without any of his witty bite (He wanted to explore ?the persecuting spirit? of the Clinton/Lewinsky ?90?s), the film, directed by Robert Benton (?Kramer vs. Kramer?), starts with mistaken racism, moves to even larger questions of racial loyalty and identity, and settles in the more familiar territory of May/December romance and loyalty.
A while ago Albert Brooks moved me with his portrayal of the older man in ?My First Mister,? a soft but mature semi-comedy about intergenerational love; recently Bill Murray?s ?Lost in Translation? made me proud to be a part of a trend to see the relationships go beyond the tritely sexual into sincere friendships.
?Human Stain? takes us back to the more familiar Chaucerian world of retribution in intergenerational liaisons. The sense of doom is palpable from the beginning, when Hopkins reminds the classics students of the trouble a young girl caused the great Achilles and Agamemnon. The tragic and heroic battle for the love a young woman in this film emphasizes Hopkins? Achilles-like youth as a boxer and Harris? Hector-like insanity. The love Hopkins finds is transforming; the vengeance Harris carries is Greek-fatal.
Director Benton drapes his art design in the forbidding New England snow, a world used to sin and retribution. Although the film is overripe with themes and Oscar aspirations, both Hopkins and Kidman are watchable as actors, whose characters' only tragic fault is the stain we all carry: the need to love and be loved.
Roth explained his title even better: "It speaks to that which is imperfect in us as humans. The Catholics call it original sin, I suppose. It is simply that which creates the human mess."