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The human stain of the title refers at once to the
macrocosm (the concept of original sin, Adam's disobedience, his defiance of God's will,
and the intimate connection of original sin to human mortality) and to the microcosm, in
this case the stain on Monica Lewinsky's dress which held the sexual indiscretions of an
American president in the forefront of world attention at the time the film opens. In a
stunning feat of imagination, the film, based on Philip Roth's novel, looks at the broad
sweep of late 20th century mores through the personal story of Coleman Silk (Anthony
Hopkins), a classics professor ("one of the first Jews in classics anywhere in
America") who is trapped by the Byzantine vengefulness of academic politics, the
rigid strictures of political correctness, and, more profoundly, the sin of pride.
Absurdly accused of racist behavior, Silk chooses to resign from the New England college that his strong leadership has brought to academic distinction. Some months later, Silk visits the cabin of reclusive Nathan Zuckerman (Gary Sinise), who has withdrawn from the world in the aftermath of a bout of prostate cancer. With gloriously life-affirming spontaneity, Silk draws Zuckerman into a Fred Astaire moment as the radio plays "Cheek to Cheek." Zuckerman narrates the film, telling the complex and many-leveled story of the friend who dragged him back into the world of the living.
But it is Silk's budding affair with a woman half his age that becomes the focal point of the story. Faunia Farley (Nicole Kidman) is a beautiful divorcee, scrapping to make a living with three minimum wage jobs and fending off the threats of her ex-husband, a psychopathic veteran of the Viet Nam war who blames her for the accidental death of their children. Fueled by Viagra, the passion between Silk and Faunia is strong, but Faunia seeks to keep it on the surface, sex without intimacy. Her history of abuse (leaving home to escape at 14; later, her husband's violence), as well as the death of her children, has left her in fear of emotional connection. As with Zuckerman, Silk's patience and kindness begin to restore her, overcoming her defenses so that she can take the risk of the vulnerability implicit in achieving genuine intimacy.
In a series of flashbacks, Silk's history is revealed. He wasn't born Jewish at all, but was the fair-skinned son of Black parents. When his first love abandoned him upon learning that he is Black, Silk chose to pass as a white and abruptly abandoned his family, a secret he has told no one, rife with irony in view of the accusations of racism. It is but one more permutation of the human stain.
From Roth's many-threaded, multi-charactered novel, screenwriter Nicholas Meyer (Fatal Attraction) and director Robert Benton (Nobody's Fool, Places in the Heart) have fashioned an inevitably pared-down, but still vital and idea-filled film that finds firm rooting in the performances of Hopkins and Kidman. If the older Silk and the youthful Silk (Wentworth Miller) seem a bit disconnected, so too is the disjunction between the life of the young prizefighter and that of the successful academic. Making allowances for that, the plot device provides a context useful for what follows, including the central story of the growing intimacy between Silk and Faunia, the most emotionally authentic love affair portrayed on the screen in recent years. Hopkins portrays just the right combination of intelligence, arrogance, tenderness, and wonder as the aging savant embracing love in full acknowledgement of his own mortality. And Kidman once again gets to the emotional heart of a complex character, subtly and tellingly letting her defenses down as she builds trust in Silk.
- Arthur Lazere