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 flashbacks.
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 available.
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 included.
The 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 potential rental.