Picks and Pans Review: The Human Stain

updated 11/10/2003 AT 01:00 AM EST

originally published 11/10/2003 AT 01:00 AM EST

Anthony Hopkins, Nicole Kidman

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A long with the vivid foliage, one of the pleasures of fall is that movies aimed at grownups return to theaters. In these, characters are complex, relationships are difficult and not every challenge can be overcome. The latest honorable entry is The Human Stain, depicting the tragic love affair between a widowed classics professor and a cleaning lady nearly 40 years his junior.

Of course, "honorable" is a weasel word, appropriate for conveying admiration but not outright praise. That nuance would be appreciated by Coleman Silk (Hopkins), an academic whose precision with language gets him into trouble—he refers to absent students as "spooks," meaning ghost, unaware that the truants are African-Americans. The resultant campus uproar forces him to retire. He soon embarks on a steamy affair with broom-pushing Faunia Farley (Kidman, in a skilled performance both sexy and sorrowful). Of their unlikely pairing, Silk prophetically tells a pal, "She's not my first love, and granted, she's not my great love, but she is sure as hell my last love." Silk has a big secret that has warped his life. In the sad-eyed Faunia, he finds someone he can trust with it.

Stain, based on Philip Roth's 2000 novel and directed by Robert Benton(Twilight), is about the costs of mendacity. Its themes are clear, but the telling fails to compel. It awkwardly toggles between the Coleman-Faunia love story and flashbacks of Coleman's youth(when he's played by a praiseworthy Wentworth Miller, see page 112), which serve to reveal his secret. The movie ends up never igniting. Hopkins gives a committed and thoughtful performance, but the Welsh-born actor is badly miscast—to say why would be to reveal the plot's major surprise—and it throws the film off pitch. (R)


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