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Friday, October 31, 2003 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Movie Review

Anthony Hopkins portrays man with hidden past in 'The Human Stain'

Seattle Times movie critic

There's a scene of perfect joy in Robert Benton's ambitious and often lovely drama "The Human Stain," finding grace in the unlikeliest of places. Coleman Silk (Anthony Hopkins), a professor troubled by a lifelong secret, sits on the porch with his friend Nathan Zuckerman (Gary Sinise), taking in the night air. From the radio comes the sweet, reedy voice of Fred Astaire singing "Cheek to Cheek," and Hopkins' face softens. When you hear music like that, he says quietly, "everything unclenches, and you are filled with a wish not to die."

Unable to contain the pleasure the music gives him, he grabs Zuckerman and the two lurch across the porch in a giddy dance, swinging each other around and swooping their arms toward the sky; they're like Oscar and Felix doing Fred and Ginger, and they're as happy in that moment as any two people can be.

"The Human Stain" is about an aging man looking back on his life, and on a choice made as a young man that changed its course irrevocably. (Though many published articles about "The Human Stain" will reveal this choice — and of course it will be known to the many who have read the 1998 Philip Roth novel on which the film is based — I'd prefer not to do so here; the movie's nearly half over by the time the secret is unveiled, and the experience is changed if you're waiting for it.)

Movie review


***
"The Human Stain," with Anthony Hopkins, Nicole Kidman, Ed Harris, Gary Sinise, Wentworth Miller, Jacinda Barrett. Directed by Robert Benton, from a screenplay by Nicholas Meyer, based on the novel by Philip Roth. 110 minutes. Rated R for language and sexuality/nudity. Metro, Meridian.
Coleman has experienced much upheaval in recent years: He's a former professor who has lost his job just before retirement after being accused of uttering a racial slur, and a recent widower now scandalizing his college town by his affair with a troubled working-class woman (Nicole Kidman) who's half his age and has secrets of her own.

The Roth novel, sprawling and reflective and full of detailed character notes, would seem a difficult one to bring to the screen, and Benton and screenwriter Nicholas Meyer have greatly simplified it, keeping its essence but reducing secondary characters and sharpening the focus. It's essentially become a love story, set against a backdrop of race and class. Both Coleman and his lover, Faunia, are fleeing their pasts, hiding together in her spartan bed, reducing the world to the tangle of their bodies.

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Benton, a marvelous director of actors (see Paul Newman in "Nobody's Fool," Dustin Hoffman and Meryl Streep in "Kramer vs. Kramer"), helps these two familiar faces reveal new shades of emotion. Hopkins, so rarely a romantic lead, is unexpectedly gentle, like a tiger perfectly tamed. Kidman, constantly smoking cigarettes clutched in her elegantly spidery fingers, speaks in a tormented, effortful whisper, her voice lumbering like an old engine. Among the fine supporting cast, Anna Deavere Smith is a standout; she has a heartbreaking late scene in which you see something die inside her.

"The Human Stain," despite the delicacy of its performances, occasionally feels heavy-handed; the subject matter has an enormous weight and the movie sometimes staggers under it. (Kidman has a late monologue, with a caged bird, that's beautifully delivered but painfully obvious in its metaphors.) But there are moments, like that porch-lit dance, that find both truth and lyricism, touching on what it means to be alive, and on what we owe to the ghosts of the past.

Moira Macdonald: 206-464-2725 or mmacdonald@seattletimes.com

Copyright © 2003 The Seattle Times Company

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