How can a man, an extremely intelligent man, live his entire life as a lie? And even continue to live that life as a lie when telling the truth is the only thing that might save his reputation and career?
You won’t get the answer to those questions in the film THE HUMAN STAIN. Only more questions. And if ever a film enticed me to search out the book on which it’s based, to discover more about that life, this will be it.
The life I speak of is that of Coleman Silk, distinguished professor of literature at a small New England College. He’s played by Anthony Hopkins, pretty much guaranteeing us a fine performance. And, as usual, he delivers. The film is set in contemporary times, with flashbacks to Silk’s own college days.
As a professor, he is conducting class one day, five weeks into the semester, when he calls on a student from his class list who is absent. Noting to those present that this student-and another-have never shown up for class, he refers to them as “spooks.” Spooks in the sense of ghosts, since he has never seen them in his class, never even met them. But this reference, call it casual, call it careless, lands him in very hot water, since these particular students turn out to be African Americans. Apart from whatever his intention was, the use of this derogatory term is deemed inexcusable, and he is dismissed from the college. After 35 years of service, it’s a dismissal that so angers him and his wife, Ernestine, that she eventually dies from a heart attack. He is now a single man, shunned by his social group, and finding himself drawn into a relationship with a much younger woman, Faunia Farely (Nicole Kidman). It’s a fascinating role for Kidman, a woman who wants no relationship, no commitment, only sex. She promises no sympathy for his problems, only physical diversion. And soon we discover that her past of an abusive husband and lost family have led her to the dead-end life she is living.
And we have the opportunity, through flashbacks, to discover the makings of Coleman Silk, a handsome young college student, son of working class parents who valued an education enough to assure him of one. And of the lie that eventually separates him from their loving embrace.
So many stories here, so many secrets that are only revealed at the end of Coleman’s life, that his good friend and author Nathan Zuckerman (Gary Sinise) is determined to document them in a novel. This film is based on a Philip Roth novel that has been called “unadaptable to film,” but Nicholas Meyer has given us a riveting screenplay, coupled with the directorial expertise of Robert Benton, to produce a film with many an unexpected turn. A film about the pressures to succeed in American society, and what one man is willing to sacrifice in order to achieve that success.
The Human Stain, with Academy Award level performances from Anthony Hopkins and Nicole Kidman, and a strong cast of unknowns, including Wentworth Miller as the young Coleman, is now showing at the Showplace East in Bloomington.