An honourable failure

Film - Mark Kermode on a bold attempt to bring Roth's flawed novel to the screen

As frankly unfilmable novels go, Philip Roth's tale of racial and sexual tension The Human Stain is an absolute humdinger. Not only is the novel laden with descriptions of sensual pleasure that could only become ridiculous on screen, but its central secret relies upon our ability to imagine (rather than see) a central character whose true identity must remain hidden. Combine these obstacles with the fact that the script has been written by Nicholas Meyer (most famous for helping transform James Dearden's Affairs of the Heart screenplay into the hysterical Fatal Attraction), and catastrophe seems unavoidable. It is therefore remarkable that The Human Stain is tolerable and occasionally moving, although even a generous viewer would have to concede that this is an honourable failure.

Set in the limbo of the late 1990s, with America briefly suspended between the age-old spectre of war and the emergent threat of terrorism, Roth's story plays out against the backdrop of the Bill Clinton-Monica Lewinsky debacle, in an atmosphere of pent-up sexual puritanism and insane political correctness. Forced out of his academic post on jumped-up charges of racism, the newly widowed Professor Coleman Silk (Anthony Hopkins) embarks on an apparently reckless sexual adventure with a lowly janitor Faunia Farley (Nicole Kidman), whose traumatic past hides a terrible family secret. Shunned by his colleagues but driven by his loins, Silk - still hiding his own ancestral skeletons - takes refuge in the company of a writer, Nathan Zuckerman (Gary Sinise), whom he hopes will help him tell his story before Faunia's crazed Vietnam-vet ex-husband Lester (Ed Harris) puts a stop to all this nonsense.

Characterised by a peculiar mixture of levity, insight and incoherence, The Human Stain is a troublesome affair indeed. On the positive side, much of the skin-crawling leeriness of Roth's depiction of Faunia has been lost - we heave a sigh of relief, for example, when a scene of this fecund temptress sexily milking cows is nimbly passed over by the respected director Robert Benton, rather than droolingly dwelt upon as in Roth's often irksome novel. Admirable, too, is the casting of newcomer Wentworth Miller, who makes a perfect pass at embodying the cross-cultural confusion of the young Coleman Silk. The extended flashback scenes of Silk's painful separation first from his girlfriend (who thinks she's hitched up with kindred stock) and then from his family, whose racial legacy he as good as disowns, are marvellously handled, bringing to the screen a conceit that was hard to imagine in the novel.

Far less satisfactory, however, is Hopkins's embodiment of the ageing, embittered Silk, a character who seems utterly divorced (both physically and mentally) from his youthful incarnation. While Miller works hard to achieve a pre-emptive facsimile of Hopkins's speech patterns and mannerisms, Sir Anthony seems content simply to play himself, making little effort to accommodate his co-star. The result is an uncomfortable hybrid: a character who strives in his youth to achieve a veneer of American-Jewish respectability, but winds up in his dotage drifting incomprehensibly towards . . . well, Welsh.

Kidman, too, is a disconcerting presence, her arch face, weightless frame and perfectly appointed teeth sitting uncomfortably with the weighty burdens of Faunia's life of hardship and grief. Even as she cracks, crumbles and cries before our very eyes (real tears are brought forth in one show-stopping scene), it is hard to imagine that this decorously tattooed waif is anything other than a classy actress turning it on for the cameras before going home for a Jacuzzi and massage.

As for Harris, his underwritten husband never rises above the level of combat-crazy caricature. Indeed, of the all-star players, only Sinise looks comfortable, partly because Zuckerman is required to be an onlooker rather than a participant in the maelstrom.

Significantly rated 18 for "very strong language" rather than for explicit visual imagery, The Human Stain is easier on the eyes and ears than its source may suggest: beautifully lensed in chilly blues and intimate browns by the sadly missed Jean-Yves Escoffier (who shot the haunting lyrical romance Les Amants du Pont-Neuf) and sensitively - if unremarkably - scored by the versatile Rachel Portman.

Benton struck box-office gold with Kramer vs Kramer and more recently earned critical acclaim for Nobody's Fool, but The Human Stain ultimately fails to engage either emotionally or intellectually. We are left with a film that one is inclined to admire from a distance, rather than embrace at close quarters. Not a bastardisation of a great text, then, but a bold stab at a flawed novel.

The Human Stain (18) is on general release

This article first appeared in the 26 January 2004 issue of the New Statesman, NS Special Report - The killing fields