In the midst of the 1998 Monica Lewinsky sex scandal, Coleman Silk (Anthony Hopkins), a distinguished classics professor at a small Massachusetts liberal arts college, embroils himself in a microcosm of similar scandal and tragedy: one chance comment in class provokes an accusation of racism that culminates in his resignation and the death of his wife. As if thumbing his nose at any further political correctness, Silk then meets Faunia Farely (Nicole Kidman), a cleaning woman half his age whose shattered life is at least as complex as his own, and starts sleeping with her. As Silk’s last love, Farely—or rather her tragic life story and their growing intimacy, never mind the age difference—awakens in him a desire to reveal his true identity, long hidden under layers of shame and deception. The principle is simple, really: self-discovery through sex.
Based on the novel by Philip Roth, The Human Stain follows Silk through four major stages of self-identification: anger, denial, acceptance and confession. It’s not Faunia who reveals Silk’s secrets to us, however, but the reticent Nathan Zuckerman (Gary Sinise), a reclusive writer whom Silk coaxes back to literary life. Part investigative journalist, part close friend, it is this would-be biographer who tells his story, discovers the truth behind Silk’s carefully engineered identity, and decides to write a book about Silk’s twisted and difficult journey from determined adolescence to indignant retirement and doomed love.
A self-made man in every sense of the word, Silk’s success in life embodies a severely warped version of the American dream: an extremely light-skinned black man passing himself off as a Jewish intellectual. Incidentally, newcomer Wentworth Miller is startlingly good as the tormented young Silk, torn between the pulls of family and future. If Silk’s life is the puzzle, Zuckerman is the omniscient narrator putting together the pieces, gleaned from flashbacks and black-and-white photographs and memories of a time when checking off “White” on a Navy identification card was the ticket to a future free of racial shackles. Silk’s reinvention of his own identity is such that blame for a racial slur cannot prod him into telling the truth about his perfectly constructed life. These long years of ironic sacrifice are what Zuckerman chronicles in an attempt to weave together a Forrest Gump-like pastiche of recent American history.
Hopkins is almost convincing as the tragic hero Coleman Silk, Kidman less so as the battered Farely—now defiantly smoking in Silk’s car, now cowering in fear of her psychopathic ex-husband, Lester (a grizzled and frightening Ed Harris). Both actors seem hampered by the hefty burdens imposed on their characters, while director Robert Benton—whose previous work includes the multiple Oscar-winner Kramer vs. Kramer—has the impression that gratuitous nudity is a sufficient replacement for any semblance of a coherent plot line.
Much like Silk himself, Benton’s film is a prisoner of its own ambitions; it falls victim to its literal devotion to Roth’s novel. For most of its meandering minutes, The Human Stain remains as glacial as its scenery, too cool and too detached; it never packs a genuine emotional, much less social or political, punch. Even Farely’s bitter tears, shed as she mourns the wreck of her life, fail to generate much sympathy for her character. Perhaps it’s the uneven pacing; perhaps it’s the inherently disjointed nature of this chronologically fragmented tale. In any case, The Human Stain is a story better left in print.