Sex. Here is a word that best describes "The Human Stain," a film about racism and, well, great sex. Based on the best-selling novel by Philip Roth, it is directed by Robert Benton ("Kramer Vs. Kramer") who brings much skill and technical finesse to this erotic/social drama. Unfortunately, Benton decides to draw out complex characters confronted by extraordinary circumstances within the stifling confines of only 100 cinematic minutes.
Anthony Hopkins is Coleman Silk, a classics professor who is forced to resign from a prestigious college after he makes an untoward comment about two absent students (he calls them "spooks" and later discovers that they are African-American). There is a major plot twist in the middle of the film that changes the way we look at the primary character. But don't worry; I will – as I usually do – be watchful of how much you really need to know at this stage. Caught in the middle of a racial controversy, Silk loses his wife to a heart attack and later himself in a passionate affair with a much younger woman, Faunia Farley, capably played by Nicole Kidman. Like Coleman, Faunia's past also masks several demons which include her abusive ex-husband, Lester (Ed Harris in yet another powerhouse performance). With the furor over Coleman's alleged racist comment not having died down, he is again plunged into the fierce scrutiny of his peers who hold his relationship with Faunia in contempt of social ethos and moral values.
The strongest element in "The Human Stain" besides the exquisite cinematography by the late Jean-Yves Escoffier is the performances from an A-list cast. Even though I would have liked to debate the actual value addition of some characters (particularly Gary Sinise's writer, Nathan Zuckerman) the sincerity behind the actors' efforts is indeed endearing. I believe many will argue a lack of chemistry between Anthony Hopkins and Nicole Kidman's characters in the film. But I found their relationship to be grounded in the reality of their circumstances: Hopkins' Coleman has suffered the brunt of social injustice both as a young man and now in old age; he is on the rebound and, therefore, vulnerable to affection. Kidman's Faunia, on the other hand, is a free-spirited, working class woman who is damaged goods given unspeakable tragedies in her prime; she needs a caring, stable man in her life and finds him in Coleman. Side-setting clichés, Faunia and Coleman's relationship is built on the crux of their need: sex and companionship. Because of this (and like many a kinship in the real world) these characters do not really have to consummate the popular definition of true love for their romance to seem any more authentic to us. Feel free to prove me wrong for - if nothing else - here is your perfect excuse to see this film.
Burdened by its substantial literary source material, "The Human Stain" tackles hard, important issues on screen but is eventually crushed under the weight of its plot and a general lack of focus. We can only imagine how the film would have turned out in the hands of an exceeding screenwriter and a more ambitious director. - Adnan Khan