We all have secrets, but some secrets are so tightly bound by lies and time that the consequences are irreversible. Coleman Silk is a man trapped within his own secrecy. A progressive Jewish classics professor in a sleepy Massachusetts town, Silk is the pivotal character of “The Human Stain,” a notably faithful screen adaptation of the celebrated novel by Phillip Roth with an undeniably riveting story that promises to surprise and captivate.
Anthony Hopkins is an interesting choice for Silk, the dean of a prestigious university, whose closet conceals a daunting skeleton. Coleman is a complicated and mysterious man, admirable for his wisdom, self-possession and eloquence under pressure. It is debatable whether Hopkins truly embodies the essence of Roth’s finely crafted literary character. What one cannot deny is the seasoned actor’s expertise in portraying the weathered and wise, and his near-regal confidence on screen by no means hinders the narrative.
When Silk is accused of racism on an unfounded technicality, first his job and then his life break away in a matter of hours. Outraged and alone, he soon finds a sympathizer and friend in Nathan Zucherman (Gary Sinise), a reclusive writer hiding from his past. Coleman then stumbles upon a dangerous scandal in an unlikely love affair with Fornia (Nicole Kidman), a local janitor who, you guessed it, harbors a mysterious past of her own.
“Stain” has potential to get bogged down with this abundance of unsolved mysteries and loose ends. Yet the pace picks up soon after a slightly slow beginning, leaving any notable narrative hiccups scattered few and far between.
Once free of introductions and formalities, the film gathers a powerful and suspenseful momentum. The full potential of the story is stunted by a slightly disjointed narrative scheme which pays little attention to the restrictions of time. Jumping first back, then forward, “Stain” reveals its secrets in frustratingly small portions. Perhaps the resulting confusion is an inevitable by-product of cramming an entire novel into several hours; nevertheless these stylistic choices take their toll.
Kidman seems surprisingly comfortable in her gritty, desperate role. Hers was an arguably gutsy casting decision, considering the intimate nature of her interaction with the much aged Hopkins. The two are an unlikely fit that somehow works anyway, due in part to the carefully crafted circumstances surrounding the affair and the manner with which it is handled.
Flashbacks to Silk’s past showcase Wentworth Miller as the young Coleman. Miller is a relative newcomer who is well equipped to handle his role, yet is much too handsome to be any relative of Anthony Hopkins, much less his younger counterpart.
Once the story gets underway, the utterly unexpected twists and turns are sure to quickly balance out any and all trivial details.
Rating: 3 1/2 stars.