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The Human Stain

Dean Coleman Silk (Anthony Hopkins) has a secret, but at the moment that isn't the worst of his problems. A professor of classics, Coleman returned to America from a career in England in order to teach at Athena College in Massachusetts, becoming one of the first Jewish academics in his discipline. But when he inadvertently describes a pair of chronically absent students as "spooks," he finds himself caught up in a firestorm of political correctness — Coleman, after all, was unaware that the two missing students on his roll were African-American. Coleman resigns his position as the Dean of Faculty, only to be struck by the double-blow of losing his wife to heart failure soon after. At loose ends, he then looks up novelist Nathan Zuckerman (Gary Sinise). Having not published a book since he won critically acclaim five years earlier, a divorce and a bout with prostate cancer have led the reclusive author to a lakeside cabin retreat. But the fiery Coleman soon lights a spark in Nathan, and the two form a fast friendship. And Nathan isn't Coleman's only new companion — a chance occurrence leads him to 34-year-old Faunia Farley (Nicole Kidman), a college custodian who is willing to form a sexual relationship with the retired academic, but is reluctant to reveal anything about her past, which includes child abuse, the deaths of two children, and a divorce from a Vietnam vet husband (Ed Harris) who's become deeply unstable. Adapted from the novel by Philip Roth by scenarist Nicholas Meyer (Star Trek: The Wrath of Khan) and directed by Robert Benton (Kramer vs. Kramer), 2003's The Human Stain has a deep literary veneer, from its opening lecture on Homer's The Iliad to the somber coda on the surface of a frozen lake. In fact, the story's Homeric qualities are hard to miss, particularly when Coleman's attorney warns him away from Faunia and her deeply erratic life — like Achilles, Coleman is the intemperate warrior drawn to battle, prod not only by the spur of sexual desire, but also by his deep sense of injustice, particularly when he believes that an injustice has been done to him. The film's erudite qualities set it apart from standard Hollywood fare, and for that alone, it's easy to recommend. With rich dialogue and dynamic performances, it's the sort of picture that doesn't need to telegraph where it's going, sustaining interest thanks to fluid character development and a lack of convenient plot mechanics. It also doesn't sugar-coat the idea of May-December or cross-class romances — the film is not so much about love as it is about individuals' abilities to gain trust in each other, particularly through personal revelations. But there are those who inevitably will think The Human Stain is too fueled on Oscar-baiting performances and hamfisted symbolism. Both Hopkins and Kidman choose to deliver some scenes at high volume when the same monologues could be more effective as a whisper, and Kidman's eventual enlightment happens when she is speaking to a tame, caged, and mute crow — it's a looking-glass epiphany that has all the subtlety of a steel chair in a pro-wrasslin' title match. But pretensions aside, The Human Stain delivers insights about personal burdens, about psyches that have been frayed by guilt, confined by societal expectations, and driven by the most basic of human desires. Roth's novel thoughtfully places these events in 1998 during the Clinton impeachment — a time, it's noted, between the fall of communism and the rise of terrorism, when the nation was so at peace that we had nothing better to do than become ill-informed, opinionated gossips. Buena Vista/Miramax's DVD release of The Human Stain features a solid anamorphic transfer (2.35:1) with Dolby Digital 5.1 audio. Supplements include a behind-the-scenes featurette (7 min.) and a tribute to cinematographer Jean-Yves Escoffier. Keep-case.

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