“Spooks.” That one word changes the course of Coleman Silk’s life. When two students in his Greek literature class consistently fail to answer as he calls their names from the attendance roster, week after week, he asks, “Does anyone know these people? Do they exist or are they spooks?” Somehow the question snowballs into a racial scandal surrounding the character played by Anthony Hopkins. Unfortunately for Coleman, both absentees are black.
“All of European literature springs from a fight,” Coleman tells his students as they start to study The Iliad — an epic poem whose first quarrel is over a woman. The Human Stain follows the same tradition. From the start of his adult life women have provoked Coleman into some kind of battle. After the stress of the scandal seems to cause the sudden death of his wife, Iris (Phyllis Newman), Coleman fights to avenge himself on her “murderers” (as he calls his enemies at Athena College) by writing a draft of a book which he’s provocatively titled Spooks. He bullishly enlists reclusive novelist Nathan Zuckerman (Gary Sinise) to rewrite the book, a screed against the ridiculous political correctness of his accusers.
After Iris’ death, Coleman encounters 34-year-old Faunia Farely (Nicole Kidman) — less than half his age, a cleaning woman and milkmaid (yes, she actually milks cows) — and consequently her violent Vietnam vet ex-husband, Lester (Ed Harris). Years of abuse and tragedy have jaded Faunia’s experience of life, with the exception of her sexual appetite for Coleman. Stain’s most conspicuous imperfection is in the casting of the porcelain-doll perfect Kidman as the chain-smoking Faunia. Even with dirty fingers and tattoos, Kidman isn’t visually credible as the “trailer trash” Faunia calls herself.
For Coleman, Faunia recalls a girl fresh from Minnesota named Steena Paulsson (Jacinda Barrett), the great love of his life.
The Human Stain slowly reveals Coleman’s secret, through flashback, that he is a “negro.” When Coleman was a young man (played by Wentworth Miller), his love, Steena, brings his struggle between his identity as an individual and as a “negro” to a head. Eventually he decides to deny his blackness by “passing”: he checks the box labeled “white” on his Naval induction form and Coleman Silk becomes a Jew.
The Human Stain is adapted from Philip Roth’s 2000 novel of the same name. Roth’s novels explore issues of race, sexuality and assimilation in America, and his books, Goodbye, Columbus (1959) and Portnoy’s Complaint (1969) were also turned into films.
In The Human Stain, Coleman is portrayed as The Iliad’s Achilles, a tragic hero who brings his own downfall when he’s denied the most cherished of spoils: a woman. In 1948, the young Coleman wins and forfeits what could have been his Scandinavian-American trophy wife, Steena. Fifty years later, Faunia — who has fallen from the privileged white life of her childhood — lands in his lap as a belated consolation prize.
As a film, The Human Stain is more or less a good adaptation of Roth’s book and its performances are grade A. But director Robert Benson occasionally fails to transfer to the screen Roth’s irony which allows his key characters — a tragic mulatto, an abused wife, a Midwestern ingenue and a traumatized Vietnam vet — to transcend cliché. But unlike Achilles’ famous heel, this is a blemish, not a fatal flaw.
Opens Friday at the Birmingham 8, Livonia 20 and AMC Forum 30.
James Keith La Croix writes about film for Metro Times. E-mail [email protected].