Please Note: The images used here are taken from the standard-definition DVD included with this release, not the Blu-ray edition under review.
My favorite conceit of movies about authors is that they always have said authors sitting around with others of their kind making grand pronouncements about their craft and inflating what is one of the world's most boring professions to watch into some semblance of a visceral vocation. "I act badly because I'm a writer. I chase truth because I'm a writer. I am brave and powerful because, honey, I'm a writer." It's like the scribes behind these screenplays are using the movie to try to convince their parents that what they do for a living isn't utterly silly.
Unsurprisingly, Hemingway & Gellhorn, a biography picture about not one, but two famous writers does not trumpet its own typing staff on the promotional materials. "From Jerry Stahl, the writer of Bad Boys II and one of the writers on Alf, and Barbara Turner, screenwriter of Pollock" was deemed unworthy as a hook. Maybe it's too lop-sided in terms of impressive credits. Instead, director Philip Kaufman, best known for Unbearable Lightness of Being, and who made a couple of actual unbearable films in the twenty-plus years since, takes all the spotlight. Bad move, sir. You really should have let someone else step in front of that bullet.
Let's get this over with quickly, shall we? Hemingway & Gellhorn is about the author Ernest "Papa" Hemingway and famed war correspondent, and novelist in her own right, Martha Gellhorn. They are played by Clive Owen, who looks like an angry Groucho Marx with his moustache, glasses, and cigar, and Nichole Kidman, who fares better, managing to be occasionally credible, but often looking otherwise out of place. The two tale-spinners met just prior to the Spanish Civil War, and their love affair began on the battlefield. Gellhorn went on to make combat reportage her life's work, while also becoming Hemingway's third wife. Together they covered the Communist revolution in China, and separately they traveled the front lines of World War II. As jealousy crept in, their love crept away. Hemingway, as seen here, grows more insecure as Gellhorn becomes more assured. Never mind that he wrote For Whom the Bell Tolls on her watch, going so far as to dedicate the book to her, he needed to compare penis sizes with someone, as F. Scott Fitzgerald was no longer available.
The move is framed by a documentary interview that Gellhorn may or may not have given in the 1980s (or thereabout), with Nicole Kidman adopting a smoker's rasp to go with her old lady make-up. It's as unnecessary to Hemingway & Gellhorn as most voiceover is to the majority of biopics, a cheap way to get through information and put fine points on things. At a running time that is already over 2 1/2 hours, Kaufman didn't need to add more bloat to his movie, there is plenty he could have zeroed in on. But, the maker of sexy-time movies like the aforementioned Unbearable Lightness of Being and Henry & June, another movie about writers that notoriously flirted with being the first NC-17 motion picture, needed to appeal to his base, and so rather than focusing on either author's accomplishments, Hemingway & Gellhorn is a drawn-out examination of the rise and fall of their sex life and eventually Hemingway's possible impotence. This is a movie where relationships are consummated while bombs cause the ceiling to cave in, and the plaster just becomes lubrication. That's how hardcore these two are. Their loins are caked with gristle! Because, you know, they're writers, and writers know that sex is primal and dirty. That's what writers do, have primal, dirty sex. (I'm even doing so right now!)
Hemingway & Gellhorn is easily one of the worst "serious" movies I've seen in this decade. It's an atrocious piece of work, with runs of dialogue that are so laughable you wonder how the cast and crew ever overcame their embarrassment to get the scenes done. Hemingway never speaks like an actual human being. He is a walking collage of all of his books. Gellhorn, on the other hand, is the kind of dashing, heroic figure who is always on the scene when it counts, rushing through bullets to snatch up dying children in her skinny arms. Their fellow writer, John Dos Passos, played with valiant resolve by a beleaguered David Strathairn, is reduced to an obsessive who forgets all else when his lover is absent; meanwhile, Parker Posey, wearing an Elizabeth Banks costume in order to play Hemingway's last wife, just looks embarrassed to be involved. Robert Duvall, at least, was smart enough not to take a credit. Hell, Hemingway & Gellhorn is a movie that has ground so many people under its wheels, Brooke Adams, one of the stars of Days of Heaven and the romantic lead in The Dead Zone, is reduced to being an extra.
Kaufman depicts history as a bad cartoon, plopping his characters into big moments willy nilly, whether they belong there or not. To emphasize the "reality," he and director of photography Rogier Stoffers (The Secret Life of Bees) shift in and out of black-and-white and sepia tones to try to match archival newsreel footage. It's a process that seems to be employed with very little thought. New footage never blends with the old, and the uniformity of the scratches and debris and the bad green-screen effects only call attention to the sloppiness of the work. This is like pre-Forrest Gump technology being used here. The attention to detail is so poor, they photoshopped Clive Owen into a photograph with F. Scott Fitzgerald without even pausing to consider that it's one of the most famous pictures of the Great Gatsby author ever taken. Meaning, many of those interested in a movie about early 20th Century literary figures would know this particular image would not have existed at the time it was shown in the film, and also didn't feature anyone else, it's a portrait of Fitzgerald alone! Seriously, you'll get a better sense of both of those authors from their brief, fictionalized appearances in Woody Allen's Midnight in Paris than you will from this plodding piece of trash.
Better yet, you could always just go read one of their books, because Hemingway & Gellhorn is so terrible it could actually make you never want to watch another movie again. You might as well cut to the chase. Now that Philip Kaufman and his cohorts have decimated cinema, literature will be one of the last remaining escapes available to you.
What was that Sarah Palin joke about putting lipstick on a pig? Because I think it applies to an awful flick like Hemingway & Gellhorn being given a beautiful high-definition transfer. The movie, which originally aired on HBO, is shown at a widescreen 1.78:1 aspect ratio, mastered at 1080p. Colors are gorgeous, with an awesome level of detail, showing texture and individual small elements with amazing clarity. The image never stutters, nor is there any pixilation, haze, or blocking. Nighttime sequences have the appropriate dark feel, and the sunny moments are bright and warm. For an appalling motion picture, Hemingway & Gellhorn is dressed to the nines!
The Blu-ray audio options are led by a 5.1 DTS-HD Master Audio track. Sound effects are well placed and the movie has an overall aural balance that is quite effective. Ambient noise pings between the speakers, and the sound design goes from quiet to loud and back and forth without any jarring shifts or out-of-place elements. Dialogue is clear and crisp, and there is even a nice differentiation between the onscreen dialogue and the voiceover.
Other audio choices include Spanish and French dubs mixed in DTS Digital Surround 5.1 The accompanying DVD also has English and French in 5.1, though Spanish is downgraded to 2.0.
English Closed Captioning is available, as are subtitles in French and Spanish. The DVD also adds Brazilian Portuguese, Korean, Thai, and Complex Chinese.
As noted, Hemingway & Gellhorn comes as a combo package with both a Blu-Ray and a DVD. Both discs share an audio commentary with director Philip Kaufman chatting with editor Walter Murch. This is very much a "read along in your book" type commentary, mostly commenting on the film as it happens and offering scant insight into the actual truth that this story borrows from and/or perverts.
The BD gets two exclusive featurettes, both of which are the usual HBO promo jobs and far from essential. These are the 5-and-a-half minute "Behind the Visual Effects" and the 6-and-a-half minute "Making Hemingway & Gellhorn.
Skip It. Oh, God, should you ever skip it. I really have nothing nice to say about Hemingway & Gellhorn. It's puffed-up and lazy and falsely provocative. The history behind it, the actual story of Ernest Hemingway and Martha Gellhorn and what they encountered as reporters in the field of battle during multiple wars, could be fodder for a really excellent drama, but Philip Kaufman's biopic is not it. Clive Owen gives perhaps the worst performance of his career as Hemingway, and Nicole Kidman flounders as Gellhorn, to the point you almost feel sorry for them. Hemingway & Gellhorn is so bad, I can't believe it was only nominated for two Golden Globes and that it didn't win any. It seems right up the alley of the Hollywood Foreign Press. I'll say it again: Skip It!
Jamie S. Rich is a novelist and comic book writer. He is best known for his collaborations with Joelle Jones, including the hardboiled crime comic book You Have Killed Me, the challenging romance 12 Reasons Why I Love Her, and the 2007 prose novel Have You Seen the Horizon Lately?, for which Jones did the cover. All three were published by Oni Press. His most recent projects include the futuristic romance A Boy and a Girl with Natalie Nourigat; Archer Coe and the Thousand Natural Shocks, a loopy crime tale drawn by Dan Christensen; and the horror miniseries Madame Frankenstein, a collaboration with Megan Levens. Follow Rich's blog at Confessions123.com.