Customer Reviews: The Human Stain
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VINE VOICEon September 28, 2004
Phillip Roth's final tale in his trilogy, "The Human Stain" is set in the summer of The Year Of Our Lord, 1998. Otherwise known as "Impeachment Summer", during which the Bill Clinton and Monica Lewinsky accusations took place, The Starr Report was released, and the whole sordid story of the infamous stained dress was on the lips of everyone, so to speak.

The film is told in flashback sequences with the narrator of the tale, writer and friend of main character, Coleman Silk's. His name is Nathan Zuckerman (a fabulous Gary Sinese). Incidentally, the character of Nathan Zuckerman is the author, Phillip Roth's alter-ego and is throughout the trilogy of novels.

Coleman Silk, played adeptly by Sir Anthony Hopkins, is a 71 year-old college professor at small New England Athena College. Coleman is wrongfully accused of racial slurs against a couple of absent pupils and loses his tenured position. This shocking news sends his beloved wife into sickness and before long, she succumbs...

If only his family, friends and all the people that Coleman Silk has touched throughout their lives knew the REAL story, such charges would have never been brought about in the first place.

Silk gets lonely and depressed quite quickly, finds the wonderful drug just produced by the name of Viagra and meets the illiterate but beautiful school janitor, Faunia Farley, played by Nicole Kidman. Faunia might be illiterate but she has graduated with honors from "The School Of Hard Knocks", both figuratively and literally by her Vietnam vet abusive husband Lester, played excellently by Ed Harris. Coleman and Faunia have a torrid affair with the whole New England town buzzing about the goings on. As they get closer and share with one another, Faunia's past is almost as shocking as Coleman's. In the final scenes of the film, all secrets are exposed...

Many critics said that the movie script itself was a masterpiece but it was grossly miscast with Hopkins and Kidman in the main roles. I disagree only because there are very few actors that could genuinely and convincingly portray the characters, let alone, carry a heavy drama such as this. The only actor that I could come up with for a recast on Coleman would be Frank Langella, in part because the physical characteristics of Coleman could have been a bit more believable to the viewer.

I must also mention the two actors who play an integral role in the flashback sequences of Coleman's youth. A terrific Wentworth Miller as Young Coleman Silk and an adequate Jacinda Barrett (from MTV's Real World London Cast) in a nice turn as young Coleman's college days lover, Steena Paulsson.

Once watching the movie, you will understand the many significant meanings of the title, "The Human Stain". Not only the stain of the original sin into which all of us are born, but the stain of hate, hurt, pain, racism, pacifism and yes, even love and death.

I highly recommend "The Human Stain" despite it's theatrical release mixed reviews and unfortunate lackluster box office draw.

Happy Watching!
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on November 2, 2003
Benton (of "Kramer vs. Kramer" or "Places in the Heart" acclaim) has always made movies with themes on the subtlest emotional vectors.
If you've read the marvellous but somewhat un-adaptable book by the same name (Phillip Roth's "The Human Stain") you'll know what I am talking about and in that case, watch the movie without any expectations of seeing a loyal adaptation because this isn't.
If you are not familiar with Roth's book, the movie's spinal theme may be racial prejudice, but it is really the story of a man deciding, late in life, to love the unknown what is beyond books, pride, even self. To learn that lesson is to turn a stain into a blessing.
Stylistically, I felt the theme could have been dealt with in a somewhat smarter way. Without giving too much away, the "scandal" at the heart of the movie really gets very little screen time which helps diminish its importance in comparison with Coleman's past. But we see so little of it that it belittles its own thematic importance, and the movie spends a great deal of energy setting up storylines and elements that get little eventual payoff.
This is why I say the novel was a bit difficult to adapt. Following Coleman's life all the way along, not just its beginning and end, could have made the movie work better as a movie; so could exposing his secret to the world of the film instead of just to the audience. At one point, Coleman's sister says doing just that would have instantly cleared up all the scandal and misunderstanding. Wrong. It would have made everything much more complicated, much more textured, much less black-and-white. As it is, we are left with a movie about two people whose lives have already ended clinging to each other for comfort.
But the cast alone is something I'd go rushing into the theatres for: Hopkins, Kidman, Harris. Hopkins' acting here is a slow, painful flowering, and Kidman, who late in the film has a long dialog delivered with such musical delicacy that it becomes an aria of regret and self-apprehension.
In sum, despite my gripes with the handling of the film, this is a film you HAVE to see. I'll go as far as to say that it's worth owning a DVD of.
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on November 14, 2004
So much of movie watching has to do with the hype, and therefore, expectations, surrounding a film. Since I had not heard much of this movie, I was surprised to find such an all star ensemble in an unheralded film. So I had the pleasure of simply watching it with no expectations, no book to compare it with, etc. The result was a compelling story of twisted lives coming to grips with themselves and their pasts. Nicole Kidman has to be one of the greatest actors of our generation, since she plays her white trailer trash role to perfection, accent and all. Anthony Hopkins use of subtle expression and understatement add tension and depth to the film. If you like complex, interwoven stories with good characters, you will like this film.
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on December 22, 2005
This is a film that is a masterpiece not only for what it says but in the way it says it.

We have a man who looks white but is black, pretends to be a Jew, and lives a life of deception. We have a woman with a background that gives her every advantage but she is destroyed because she was molested as a child due to her ravishing beauty. At the very moment when these two finally find peace in each other's arms they are wiped out by the insanity of evil.

Coleman's story unfolds in a series of perplexing flashbacks that leaves the viewer confounded until we finally discover that Coleman Silk and the black boxer are one and the same. Faunia's story is equally confusing. It is unreasonable that this utterly gorgeous young woman is so casually willing to give herself sexually to a rejected Viagra dependant old man. Why is she merely scraping out a living for herself sweeping floors and feeding cattle when you sense that she has so much more to offer? What horror has brought her to this state of despair? As her story unfolds in her final soliloquy with a caged crow we find that she is so haunted by the blame she feels for the accidental death of her children, while she was distracted with a lover, that she is suicidal, emotionally detached, and devastated.

Into this mix vengeance pursues Faunia in the form of her ex-husband, a tortured Viet Nam vet for whom killing has become a casual exercise. Lester Farley is a clever mixture of blind fate and conscious hate that only the writer, Zuckerman, ultimately understands and reveals to the world.

What makes this film so artfully intriguing is the way the story unfolds in its seemingly chaotic fashion reflecting the chaos of the human condition the film is describing, and it is a story that is hard to take because it rings so heartbreakingly true. The acting by the principals, Hopkins, Kidman, Sinise, Harris,and Miller is utterly outstanding in every way, and the film deserves repeated viewings from that standpoint alone. As for the story itself, it takes a couple of viewings with patience and reflection to fully appreciate its authentic depths. Finally, in an ironic way, one might take comfort from Coleman's and Faunia's deaths that the moment at which they died was the moment at which they had reached fulfillment with each other.
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on July 27, 2005
From the other source, this film had a relatively low review, but I think it is a good film.

What this film makes great is the great story. I have not read the book, but I am sure it is as good as this film or even better.

The story itself is very sad but written so beautifully that its beauty can over-ride the sadness. The past scenes and present ones appear quite often in the way that reveal and unwind the secret. It is a drama, but I think this is more than that. It is a literature - a work of art... I am talking about the story now.

I am happy with the music and photography of the film. Also I find the acting great. The voice of Coleman's young lover sounded like it was always directly from a microphone, and I like the effect because it suites the way she speaks and also describes how this lady's existance sinks into Coleman's mind as though she was a nutrition he was missing so long.

The story is a miserable one, but which great literature does not contain a misery anyway?
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on November 22, 2011
There are several reviews which sketch the story line of this film and there's no point in repeating it. This film has a great cast -- Anthony Hopkins, Nicole Kidman, Gary Sinise, Ed Harris -- all talented actors, and all give creditable performances.

The story is told in such a way that there really are no secrets -- you learn the backgrounds of characters fairly soon after they are introduced, and their "big secrets" come out early. This isn't a film about "secrets"; it's a film about stains which people carry within. The characters are stained by events or other people, but the story exposes the importance of how we react to adverse situations. All of the characters battle demons, and all fight differently. Most overcome their stain, and they do it through loving and being loved. This film isn't really about racism, nor is it about a long kept secret. It's about battling events which we perceive as being unjust, and eventually about healing. This is true of all the major characters, and if you don't see this point then I suggest you watch the film again.

This isn't the best film ever made but it is an excellent one. I've watched it several times and I still enjoy it. This movie isn't a puzzle to be solved but a set of stories to be heard and understood.
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on August 11, 2007
I came into this movie knowing that, as has been proven time and time again in the history of novels being made into movies, that the adaptation would of course be an oversimplification of the complexity of the book. The only question would be how gross the oversimplification would be.

Philip Roth's novel is a forthright examination of the thoroughness of misery. Roth, as perhaps the last among those we can call American Novelists, peers into the American character to see how we all suffer through depths of misery though we look anxiously for an easy lifestyle--we are, after all, Americans. But The Human Stain takes an honest look at everyone, from Coleman Silk, a classics professor pushed out of his university position due to a charge of racism, which he explodes over because he is a man carrying far bigger secrets that are tearing him apart, to Lester Farley, an abusive, dangerous and violent ex-husband who is also an incredibly damaged Vietnam vet.

Of course, for this movie, many of the character depths would have to be sliced away for the sake of time. One of the slices here, unfortunately, is of Lester, which I think is a shame, because that is an immediate indication that the movie is not going to address the breadth of human character than the novel does. Instead of being a sick SOB that we can actually feel bad for because of his own damage, Lester in this movie (played by Ed Harris, of course--who else?) is quite simply the raving ex-husband.

This lack of depth is more unfortunate, considering some of the actrors that are pulled together for this--I mentioned Ed Harris, but also Anthony Hopkins, Nicole Kidman (who has been climbing higher and higher in my ladder of opinion), Gary Sinise--these are actors who could have dealt with the boxes within boxes of Roth's characterizations, but alas the script does not give them the opportunity. Some good moments, especially between Sinise and Hopkins, but overall a little flat. A shame.
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Two lonely people come together, Coleman Silk (Anthony Hopkins), a professor who quits his job after a supposed racial slur and Faunia Farley (Nicole Kidman), an eccentric younger woman disabused by the harsh realities of her life. A former welterweight boxer who has turned his back on his race, Silk lives as a white man caught in an ironic twist of fate. In a fine blend of racism and religious intolerance before the gratuity of political correctness, the young Coleman makes irreversible decisions that critically affect his later years. As a deeply melancholic mature man, Coleman finds sudden happiness with Faunia in spite of her personal despondency and refusal to believe in joy.

Moody and dark, played out against countryside covered with snow, the fine-tuned cinematography catches every nuance of shadow and flesh, as the movie evolves into an agonizing collision of desire vs. reality. Acting out the role of Achilles, pitted against fate and the grim determination of the gods, Silk refuses to give up the younger woman, no matter the consequences.

The film is carefully balanced, shifting from present to past, exposing the painful histories of the characters, the roots of their flaws. The supporting roles are beautifully played by Gary Sinise as Nathan Zukerman, a reclusive writer and friend of Silk's and Ed Harris as Lester Farley, an ex-Vietnam vet unable to purge the violence from his life. In the end, seeking an island of comfort, Silk and Faunia gravitate to one another, sensing at least a temporary respite from an often cruel world. "The things that restore you can destroy you." Luan Gaines/ 2005.
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on November 6, 2004
Just when you think the critics are starting to get it right, they get it wrong again. That's what happened to this film. People stayed away in droves from this well done and thoughtful film by a director with a subtle touch that escapes most of our video age movie going public. Anthony Hopkins, Gary Sinise, and Nicole Kidman give real performances that will challenge and hopefully enrage some of you into seeing the dangers of social convention and why we let bad things happen. This is a movie for people who ask questions, not just for those who feel they have all the answers.
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on November 13, 2013
Once upon a time it was a given statement that the book was better than the movie. Directors and screenwriters finally realized that with effort the movie could become a stand-alone achievement and on occasion come up on the better side of the comparison. Robert Benton's the Human Stain stands very well against the original Philip Roth novel. Movie making allows for a tighter, more streamlined construction and does a better job focusing on a select number of major story themes. What this movie lacks is much of the brilliant language of Philip Roth and a few complexities that make the larger story more credible. This is a very good movie it could have been a very great movie.

Before the first word is spoken the gray winter and the dolorous music bring us to the sudden death of the two people will be the center of the balance of this movie. That's not a spoiler alert that's barely 30 seconds into the movie. In telling us the story of Dean Coleman Silk (a miscast Anthony Hopkins) and Faunia Farley (a frumpy Nicole Kidman) we start off knowing how the story will end but not knowing if the ending is in fact tragic.

Dean Silk has recently been maneuvered out of his position as Dean of a small New England college. He is also taken up with a much younger and much less educated school janitor and postmistress for the nearby village. These are two profoundly damaged people each with tragic secrets. The vast distances between them in age, education and social circumstance do not matter so much as the common fact of their damaged lives. In finding each other and in finding love the plot question is: have they resolved their respective lives such that they are now ready for what we know will be their death?

In streamlining the story we lose all of the politics that came together to strip Dean Coleman of his position. The simplified story involving the professor's use of the word "spook" to describe students he had never seen. Students who, because they are black are able to complain that use of the word spook constitutes racism. Absent the larger context of university maneuvering this complaint comes off as insufficient for ending and otherwise honorable career. Additionally Sir Anthony Hopkins for all his brilliant acting lacks the correct accent and he is not convincing as a New Jersey Jew; never mind that this is persona is a beard for who he really is.

Faunia's ex-husband Lester (Ed Harris) is a wonderful performance as a psychotic Vietnam vet and spouse abuser. In the book I felt that the psychotic Vietnam vet character was somewhat cliched in the movie this aspect of the character is unnecessary and should have been trimmed. By 2003 the issues of ex-husband stalking and spouse abuse was sufficiently standardized that there was very little to be gain by heaping yet another insult on Vietnam veterans.

These errors aside the Human Stain is a very good movie. It is drama, but hardly intense drama. For all the choppy, out of sequence flashbacks the story flows in a reasonably ordered progression of reveals and explanations. Some will consider this a sad story and therefore not a movie you may choose to watch more than once. There is sufficient complexity to justify more than one viewing. Part of that complexity is in trying to decide if the story really is sad and tragic and without risking another spoiler I will suggest there are reasons to reject the concept that this is a tragedy. The Human Stain is worth a viewing and there is enough to bring you back for images and dialogue you may have missed.
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