The Human Stain is a film that must have been hard to promote.
Its billing as a kind of suspense or mystery film (complete with
provocative tag line "How far would
you go to escape the past?") is pretty much woven out of thin
air, because that's not really the direction that the film goes in.
Although, to be perfectly honest, the mystery/suspense label is as
accurate as any other, since the main feature of The Human Stain
is that it doesn't really know what to do with itself.
The film opens with quite a nice dramatic hook, with what appears to
be a flash-forward to the end of the film (or at least, the end of
the line for several of the characters). But after that, the
narrative wanders without a clear direction. We follow Coleman Silk
(Anthony Hopkins), a college professor who loses his job over a
racial issue, and his new relationships with a reclusive writer (Gary
Sinise) and a much younger woman (Nicole Kidman) who becomes his
lover. And we wait, wondering where all of this is leading, because
for a good portion of the film, it seems like The Human Stain
has simply decided to chronicle an aging man's self-destructive
sexual impulses and overall loneliness.
The most interesting element in The Human Stain is a set of
flashbacks to Silk's youth. Several of these long flashbacks show
Silk (played here by Wentworth Miller) confronting issues of race,
and while I can't reveal what those issues are without spoiling the
one "twist" offered by the film, I can say that these are
the best parts of the film, with an interesting and compelling
conflict between Silk as an individual, his family, and society's
stereotypes. The Human Stain would really have been a much
better film if it had jettisoned the entire present-time portion of
the film and developed the background story instead. As it is, the
"twist" that I mentioned will have viewers rather puzzled.
Let's just say that Anthony Hopkins is more than a little hard to
accept as Coleman Silk, given what we learn about him in the
To its credit, The Human Stain has solid performances from its
cast. The December-May relationship between Hopkins and Kidman is
more believable than it might seem, given that both actors present
their characters as being a bit lost, searching for something, even
if it's just a bit of comfort. Kidman delivers the best performance
of the cast, with an almost feral intensity in her scenes.
Structurally, The Human Stain is rather lost. There are
several scenes that have no discernible
function in the film, advancing neither the story, nor the mood, nor
the development of the characters. In fact, some of the characters
seem oddly ill-fitting in the story as well; I'm not sure what
Sinise's character really contributes. Given that The Human Stain
was based on a novel, it's likely that we're seeing the result of an
awkward adaptation of a longer, more developed written story.
The lack of a compelling story, and the inclusion of scenes that felt
like padding, meant that I spent quite a bit of the film
contemplating the landscape and architecture that appear. The story
is set in western Massachusetts, and though it was filmed mainly in
Canada, the setting is captured to a T in both the snowy landscape
and the style of the houses and college buildings, both interior and
exterior. Since I lived for a number of years in western Mass, this
added a certain charm to the film for me.
The Human Stain has a decent anamorphic transfer, with the
film presented at its original 2.35:1 aspect ratio, though it's not
perfect. The image suffers from heavy edge enhancement and
occasionally imperfect contrast; colors also look a little "off"
in a few instances. Mostly, there's just not the clarity that we
might expect from a 2003 production: close-ups look nicely detailed,
but middle-distance and long-distance shots are soft and blurrier.
Colors generally look fine.
The Dolby 5.1 soundtrack does a nice job of capturing both dialogue
and environmental sounds quite well. It's a mainly dialogue-focused
film, but the surround channels give it a touch of depth as well. A
dubbed French track and French and Spanish subtitles are also
There are slim pickings for special features here. A "Behind the
Scenes Special" turns out to be a seven-minute promotional
piece, and "Jean Yves Escoffier Tribute" is nothing more
than a wordless two-minute montage of scenes from films that the
cinematographer worked on. Trailers for other Miramax films are also
Human Stain has a stellar cast, with Anthony Hopkins, Nicole
Kidman, Gary Sinise, and Ed Harris, but it doesn't know what to do
with them. A wandering, unfocused story and a few plot areas that
stretch the audience's suspension of disbelief make for a film that
could have been much better than it turned out to be. An intriguing
storyline in the flashback segments is what makes The Human Stain
most worth watching, though ironically this portion of the film
doesn't involve any of the well-known actors. I'll suggest this as a