Anthony Hopkins as Coleman Silk
Nicole Kidman as Faunia Farely
Ed Harris as Lester Farely
Gary Sinise as Nathan Zuckerman
Wentworth Miller as Young Coleman Silk
Jacinda Barrett as Steena Paulsson
Harry J. Lennix as Mr. Silk
Clark Gregg as Nelson Primus
Anna Deavere Smith as Mrs. Silk
Lizan Mitchell as Ernestine
Kerry Washington as Ellie
Phyllis Newman as Iris Silk
Margo Martindale as Psychologist
Ron Canada as Herb Kebble
Mili Avital as Young Iris
Coleman Silk (Hopkins) loses everything of importance to him in a single afternoon: accused of racism, he resigns as Dean of Faculty of the small liberal arts college he has been a part of for the last thirty years and, a few hours later, his wife dies in his arms of a pulmonary embolism brought on by the shock. The rest of the movie is about the creation and recreation of Coleman Silk by Coleman Silk. We see Silk in flashbacks creating himself in a monumental act of will and falsehoods, and we follow his struggle in the present to recreate himself, the “present” being that curiously ambiguous, aimless, and self-righteous period in the late nineties when Americans were obsessed with the trivia of Bill and Monica: after the Cold War but before terrorism reached America, as Gary Sinise’s voiceover observes.
Coleman Silk is at the center of “The Human Stain,” and for the first few scenes Hopkins dominates the screen with his bluff charm, bulling his way into his reclusive neighbor’s house and into an already-closed post office, and thus into the lives of Nathan Zuckerman (Sinese) and Faunia Farley (Kidman). From there, however, the movie begins to dissolve and lose focus as it becomes clear that Silk himself is lost, unsure of who or what he is for the first time in decades.
The frequent flashbacks are concerned with Silk’s first act of self-creation, one which begins and ends with an act of such self-hatred and abnegation that the rest of his life will be based on a single monumental lie. The flashback scenes are interesting more for their uncompromising portrayal of the forties and fifties than for Silk’s actual development, at least in the hands of Wentworth Miller as the younger Silk: while Miller does a credible job of imitating Hopkins’ rough, seductive charisma, he lacks Hopkins’ subtle expressiveness, and the flashback scenes themselves are often too self-conscious: a weaker version of “Far From Heaven” without either Julianne Moore’s radiance or Dennis Quaid’s touching confusion. They are perhaps most notable for the quiet, understated dignity in the performances of Harry Lennix and Anna Deaveare Smith as Mr and Mrs Silk.
In the present, Coleman Silk is trying to recreate himself, first by writing the story of his accusation and resignation, with the help of friend, neighbor and author Nathan Zuckerman, and later through Faunia Farley, the beautiful and troubled college janitor with whom he begins a seductive and strangely destructive relationship. Coleman is searching for the one thing he has lacked all his life: the peace of self-acceptance through the unquestioning love of another. This is, ultimately, is what draws him to Faunia despite the frantic warnings of his friends and former colleagues. It is an amazing tour de force for Hopkins to go from his usual overwhelming presence to a man who appears lost, unsure, and even beaten, and he does it beautifully. Unfortunately, this leaves the movie without a center, and neither the curiously bland Sinese nor the cold, unknowable, and often unlikeable Kidman are able to fill it adequately. As the details of Faunia’s past begin to surface, Faunia herself remains fairly distant and unapproachable: her problems and griefs nearly always serve to highlight some aspect of Coleman. Even her grief at losing her children serves to highlight the fact that he never had children, and ultimately, that the great lie of his existence prevented him from having them. Only Kidman’s ex-husband, Lester Farley (Ed Harris), seems to know what he wants, and thus only he is able to draw the audience in with the strength of his wanting. His brief scenes with Hopkins crackle with energy, until each of them goes back to trading banalities with blander characters again.
I don’t mean to imply that the actors are not outstanding: I think they do exactly what they set out to do in recreating Philip Roth’s acclaimed novel. Hopkins’ Coleman is first a force of nature and then, brilliantly, a confused and tired old man. Kidman’s cold, damaged princess is meant to be distant and unknowable, and the few scenes with Harris’ coiled, intense character are deeply memorable. In a book, Sinese’s nonentity would make the perfect narrator, serving as the eyes and ears of the reader, rather than the abstract, rather nasal voice-over he becomes in the movie.
What this means, I suspect, is that this slow unfolding, crafting, and recrafting of a life made a better book than it did a movie. There have been movies that are able to thoughtfully explore the interior lives of their subjects, but The Human Stain does not quite manage to coalesce around any of its characters.