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The professor and the working girl

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Along with its satirical and sometimes angry portrait of academic life, Philip Roth's novel, The Human Stain, confronts some complicated cultural issues revolving around race and the delicate and often ridiculous notion of political correctness. While adhering to some of the essence of Roth's book, the film version of the novel mostly touches on those issues without fully engaging them, which may constitute the chief defect in an otherwise authentic and often touching motion picture. Perhaps because of the difficulty of visualizing the largely internal and cerebral tensions of an academic community, it must concentrate on the personal predicament of its central character and therefore become more an academic melodrama than an academic satire.

            Anthony Hopkins plays Coleman Silk, a rather elderly professor of classics and dean of the faculty at a New England college, apparently one of those small but entirely tweedy institutions sometimes known as the Potted Ivies. While lecturing on The Iliad (in a rather dubious interpretation, by the way) he questions the existence of two students whose names appear on his roster but have never appeared, referring to them as "spooks," i.e., ghosts. The students, whom we never see, turn out to be African American and, goaded by one of those odious theoretical ideologues on the faculty, file a complaint of racism against the professor. With the familiar professorial pusillanimity, his colleagues fail to support him, and he is forced to resign.

            From the point of Silk's departure from the faculty, the film moves away from the academic matters of the novel to a series of flashbacks that balance the professor's previous life with present events. Although he is supposedly the first Jewish professor of classics at the college, Coleman actually is a black man who since his youth has "passed" for white, a circumstance apparently based on the life of the literary critic Anatole Broyard. The movie shows some of the profound emotional complication of Silk's choice, its devastating effect on his family and the lifetime of internal conflict, guilt, and anger that he suffers.

            In the present, however, The Human Stain focuses on Silk's liaison with Faunia Farley (Nicole Kidman), a troubled young woman who works on the maintenance staff of the college. Faunia brings her own pain, guilt, and anger to the relationship. The learned old man and the uneducated woman, who calls herself "trailer trash," embark on a torrid sexual affair, assisted by Viagra, as he tells his friend and the author's continuing alter ego, Nathan Zuckerman (Gary Sinise). Ignoring poison-pen letters from his faculty enemy, the warnings of both his lawyer and his friend, and the threats of Faunia's demented ex-husband (Ed Harris), Silk vows to continue the affair. As he tells Nathan, Faunia may not be his first love or his greatest love, but she is his last love.

            That final love underlines the ultimate sadness of the flashbacks to Silk's youth in his (and Roth's) hometown, Newark, New Jersey, where he excelled both as a student and an athlete, winning numerous academic honors, and knocking out opponents in the boxing ring. As the picture alternates between past and present, those flashbacks suggest some insight into the anger that propels the professor's behavior. Faunia's anger, which more than matches his, derives from an abusive childhood and the deaths of her two young children, a result, she believes, of her own neglect. The ex-husband, a dangerous psychopath, ultimately ignites the explosive triangle with his own brand of lunatic rage.

            Despite its occasional moments of humor and its important theme of race, Nicholas Meyer's script and Robert Benton's direction tend to transform the book into one of those classic American "Northerns." In its intense focus and tragic consequence, The Human Stain now and then resembles those austere moral tales of adulterous love played out against the bleak landscape of a New England winter, in the tradition of The Scarlet Letter, say, or Ethan Frome. The movie emphasizes more strongly than the book a harsh sense of judgment and loss, making it more a story of passion and punishment.

            The performances of the two principals enliven what could be an overwhelmingly dark story with significant emotional strength and depth. Usually rather understated, here Hopkins plays Coleman Silk as an eccentric but not inexperienced intellectual, so overcome by his new, last love that he now and then even seems somewhat deranged. Nicole Kidman, however, remains the most pleasing surprise of the movie, replacing her usual lovely, porcelain passivity with a sluttish sexiness, revealing a versatility she has rarely demonstrated before. She and Hopkins work wonderfully well together, suggesting both fire and feeling in the familiar relationship between the wise old man and the sexy young woman, making it the real core of the film.

The Human Stain, starring Anthony Hopkins, Nicole Kidman, Ed Harris, Gary Sinise, Wentworth Miller, Jacinda Barrett, Harry J. Lennox, Clark Gregg, Anna Deavere Smith, Phyllis Newman; based on the novel by Philip Roth; screenplay by Nicholas Meyer; directed by Robert Benton. Pittsford Plaza Cinema; Regal Henrietta.

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