Director Robert Benton's quietly compelling adaptation of Philip Roth's novel "The Human Stain" has two conspicuous problems: The very beginning and the very end, both of which are such arrant cinematic affectations that I knew immediately -- without ever having read the book -- the scenes were supplements of the screenplay.
The film opens with a flash-forward revealing its two main characters in a car crash on an icy road. This disclosure has the opposite of its intended effect -- it squelches half the story's escalating tension because you already know what's coming, even if you don't immediately know the ultimate fate of the people in the car.
The faux pas at the end of the picture is that Benton overshoots a perfect finale (the last scene from the novel, I've since learned) for the sake of a heartstring-tugging Hollywood epilogue.
But the balance of the film is everything one should expect from actors the caliber of Anthony Hopkins and Nicole Kidman.
The plot follows the plight of Coleman Silk (Hopkins), an esteemed classics professor at a prestigious New England college whose career is shattered in the name of political correctness over a single word mistaken for a racial slur. "Do these people exist," he gripes about three students who have never once attended his class, "or are they spooks?"
Forced into retirement, the stress of which gives his wife a fatal embolism, Silk eventually finds some semblance of solace in a friendship with a reclusive writer (Gary Sinese, the film's narrator) and an uneasy and unexpected affair with Faunia (Kidman), a troubled, distrustful younger woman with some serious psychological baggage (sexual abuse and worse) that keeps her at arm's length from any kind of joy in life. This is something with which the newly cynical Coleman finds a certain kinship.
Revealing no hint of her personal elegance in her role as a coarse and common beauty hanging on to the bottom rung of society (Faunia is a janitor at the college), Kidman is as much a revelation in this role as she was in her Oscar-winning performance as Virginia Woolf in last year's "The Hours." Using rough hands, dirty fingernails and cigarettes almost as extensions of her prickly, distrustful, soul-sapped personality, she seduces Coleman out of a misplaced feeling of obligation when, after her car breaks down, he helps her home to a dairy farm where she rents a room to hide from a abusive loose-cannon ex-husband (an unnerving Ed Harris).
But when this December-May relationship blossoms -- presenting its own set of problems due to the clash of their very different worlds -- a trust begins to form that helps trigger a flood of pent-up emotions in both lovers.
Through flashbacks to his post-World War II youth (where tall, strong-jawed Wentworth Miller does a fine job of capturing Hopkins' character traits without looking a thing like the star), the film reveals that Coleman has been holding on to a secret that could virtually clear his name in one fell swoop -- a secret that shaped his life since his late teens, a secret that permanently alienated him from his family and abetted his rise in academia, and a secret that destroyed his first true love.
Hopkins gives a characteristically refined performance of sweeping but subtle poignancy as Coleman, beautifully capturing the man's furtively bridge-burning temperament, his re-emerging regrets and his long-dormant memories of that ruined relationship which motivate him to devote himself to Faunia in ways that the writer -- his only remaining friend -- has a hard time understanding.
"To her sex and betrayal are the same thing," Coleman says of his perseverance to be a mainstay in her hitherto volatile life, despite the disparity of their lifestyles and the fact that she's seen in the community as further proof of his virtue's decay. "Granted she's not my first love, and she's not my great love. But she is my last love. Doesn't that count for something?"
Directed by Benton ("Twilight," "Kramer vs. Kramer") with a literary grace that would have allowed the tension to build naturally if it weren't for that spoiler prologue, "The Human Stain" is -- despite its bookending machinations -- a strong, self-possessed film that strikes an emotional nerve (several nerves, in fact) without being overbearing the way so many Oscar-bait movies are this time of year.