Author of such classics of 20th-century literature as The Sun Also Rises, For Whom the Bell Tolls, and The Old Man and the Sea, Ernest Hemingway lived a life that was fit for a novel of adventures all by itself. His career as a journalist as well as his own adventurousness led him to such places as France, Spain, Italy, Africa, and Cuba, where he lived a life of the utmost machismo, fighting wars, climbing mountains, and the like, while writing the books and stories that would eventually make him famous. In short, it's no surprise that Ernest Hemingway's life should be the subject of a TV miniseries; what is surprising is that a series about such an adventurous life could manage to be so absolutely dull.
Hemingway is a perfect example of production choices gone awry. It has lavish sets and costuming and a wide variety of on-location sites all over the world, wherever Hemingway's globetrotting habits took him during his lifetime. But there are few projects that have unlimited funds available, and in the case of Hemingway, it's painfully clear that the sets and locations took up the largest chunk of the budget pie, leaving the screenplay and the acting at the bottom of the list. It only takes comparison to the classic miniseries I, Claudius to show up the foolhardiness of putting the "look" of the series above its acting and writing content. What makes I, Claudius a classic is that while the sets and costumes are quite basic, the quality of the script and of the acting is simply outstanding. In contrast, the opposite balance is what makes Hemingway an ultimately tedious viewing experience.
The miniseries does have potential, with an interesting retrospective narrative frame and a wide variety of interesting settings, all filmed on location. However, what kills Hemingway is the combination of terrible acting and a dreadful script. I can't think of a single major character who is actually convincing as a real person; the actors, one and all, appear to be simply reading their lines... and those lines of dialogue are forced, awkward, and unrealistic. It's a case of "the chicken and the egg" to determine which came first: is the acting terrible because the actors couldn't do anything better with the script, or does the script come across so badly because of the utterly lackluster performances?
The screenwriter appears to have been trying to incorporate Hemingway's own writings into the film, either by having the character say them as part of his lines, or by having Keach read out loud portions of whatever book Hemingway was working on at that point in the film. In theory, this is an excellent way to bring realism and substance to the film, since it's using the author's own words in a film about his life. For an example of a film that pulls it off marvelously well, you can look at the film version of Oscar Wilde's life, Wilde, which makes extensive use of excerpts from Wilde's letters and other works. In Hemingway, though, it falls utterly flat, with a large thump. Part of the problem, I think, is that actor Stacy Keach, as Hemingway, is simply uncomfortable with reading aloud as opposed to speaking dialogue; and the rest of the problem is that the script introduces the quoted material very awkwardly.
In the end, there is absolutely no reason to care about Hemingway, much less watch five hours of a two-dimensional portrait of an egocentric and generally unpleasant fellow doing macho things in various exotic locations. I am willing to admit that Hemingway appears to have had an interesting life, and that his personality was apparently complicated; but the film or television treatment that will bring his character alive and engage us with his life and times has yet to be made.
Originally made for television, Hemingway is presented in its original 1.33:1 aspect ratio. It's not a particularly attractive image, with lackluster contrast resulting in a loss of detail in some scenes, as well as a fair amount of noise throughout the image and an overall grainy appearance. Except for the occasional bright outdoors scene, colors tend to be on the muddy side.
The Dolby 2.0 track is just about average as a soundtrack. The dialogue is generally clear and understandable, but the music is a bit tinny.
The listing on the back cover of the DVD sounds promising in terms of special features, but it doesn't really pan out. There's a biography of Hemingway and a section of commentary from Keach about Hemingway, but both are text-only. The only other special features are cast and crew biographies and a bibliography of Hemingway's works.
The two-disc set is nicely packaged in a slim, single-disc-sized case. The second disc has its own plastic spindle in the middle of the DVD case, so that both discs are held securely with no risk of sliding around.
Unless you are a rabid Stacy Keach fan, I can guarantee that you have better things to do with five hours of your leisure time than watching this lackluster miniseries. It's a shame that it's as bad as it is, because the subject is potentially interesting and the "look" of the production is excellent... but it just falls completely flat. Skip it.