Human Stain, The

There is a certain chutzpah involved in Philip Roth’s identification of the now-famous stain on Monica Lewinsky’s blue dress with, well, The Human Stain that does not survive the adaptation of his novel of that name — by Robert Benton (director) and Nicholas Meyer (screenwriter) — to the silver screen. The Clinton-Lewinsky connection is pretty much limited to an overheard conversation whose purpose is less thematic than the establishment of time and place, which is 1998: “The Summer of Sanctimony.”

Well yes, but the connection between sanctimony in Washington and a bout of political correctness at a small college in New England — to say nothing of the events which follow it and which the film mainly concerns itself with — is very far from clear. In a way this is a good thing, as there is far too much portentousness and reaching after significance in the movie as it is. That poor old stain and the compassion it evokes is forced to take in racism, racial hypocrisy, academic p.c., the sexual abuse of children, domestic violence, class-discrimination and post-traumatic stress disorder among Vietnam veterans, among other things.

Even without the addition of our late-blooming sexual Puritanism during the Clinton administration the movie’s various themes seem very ill-assorted, and the confusion is made worse by an equally serious but quite unexpected problem with it. This lies, most oddly for a movie with such high-powered performers, in the casting. I, at least, simply don’t believe in Anthony Hopkins as Coleman Silk, a black boy from East Orange, New Jersey, who “passed” for white — his young self, played by Wentworth Miller, is much more persuasive — nor yet in Nicole Kidman as Faunia, sensitive, damaged, grief-stricken trailer-trash who was born rich, nor even in Gary Sinise as Nathan Zuckerman, Roth’s alter ego who tells their story.

This is to take nothing away from any of them as actors, but they’re just wrong for the parts they’re in. Ed Harris is much more believable as Lester Farley, Faunia’s deranged ex-husband who makes his experiences in ‘Nam (as he calls it) and the nation’s ingratitude an excuse for all manner of brutal and criminal behavior. But he is such a cliché, standing as he does for that unredeemed American masculinity that naturally presents itself to the progressive-minded in terms of mental illness, that he can do little to rescue the picture on his own.

Silk, a much respected classics professor and dean at Athena College in New England is forced to resign when his innocent use of the word “spook” is disingenuously taken by politically motivated students and colleagues as a racial slur. So completely has he grown into his white identity that even to save his career he is unable to reveal that he is, by blood anyway, black himself.

The shock of his resignation proves fatal to his wife and, after a lapse of some months, he starts a relationship with much younger Faunia of the college’s custodial staff — perhaps as a way for him to re-connect with his roots while at the same time pointing up the college’s hypocrisy without revealing his own. But he learns that Faunia comes from upper class people, from whom she ran away to escape a sexually abusive stepfather, and, as if that were not enough of a psychic mess for her to be coping with, she is also trying to live down the guilt she feels over the deaths of her two children in an accident.

Everybody has his own problems, I guess you’d have to say, but there isn’t really much more to say than that. Not that the movie doesn’t try — as when we are told, quite laughably I think, that “she [Faunia] had run from a world of privilege just as he [Silk] had from a world ruled by race.” So I guess that’s what they had in common. But any such feeble attempts to create a sense of moral inevitability, either about Silk’s political and professional misstep or his subsequent fate and that of Faunia — or even the malign Lester’s delusional vengeance upon them — are as unpersuasive as the characters themselves.

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