The Human Stain

Release date: Oct. 31
Distributor: Miramax
Prior Oscar winners: Robert Benton (adapted screenplay, director, “Kramer vs. Kramer”; original screenplay, “Places in the Heart”), Anthony Hopkins (“Silence of the Lambs”), Nicole Kidman (“The Hours”), Rachel Portman (original musical or comedy score, “Emma”)

It’s been a generation since Hollywood experienced its brief love affair with novelist Philip Roth, whose “Goodbye Columbus” and “Portnoy’s Complaint” had as much to do with America’s sexual revolution as burning bras and burning hemp.

It’s not as if Roth has gone underground — quite the contrary; between such creations as Alexander Portnoy and “The Human Stain’s” Coleman Silk, his writing has become more inventive, more expansive, more provocative.

“The Human Stain” represents the third part of a trilogy that began with “American Pastoral” and “I Married a Communist” and, like those works, deals with truths and half truths, shadow lives and the often painful process of assimilation. The film version, directed by Oscar winner Robert Benton, is a serious examination of hypocrisy, ethnic shame and redemption.

Cast is heavyweight, including Oscar winners Anthony Hopkins as Silk, a 71-year-old lit professor dismissed on a false charge of racism, and Nicole Kidman as Faunia Farely, the fiery 34-year-old maintenance worker with whom he has an affair, and who — like Silk — harbors her own dark secrets. This is no December-May romance invented by Hollywood, but the volatility of the relationship underscores Roth’s intent to place Silk “into a perpetual state of emergency that is sexual intoxication.”

In its Venice Film Festival review, Variety made much of Hopkins’ purported lack of credibility in playing a light-skinned African-American, and the lack of verisimilitude between Hopkins and Wentworth Miller, who plays him as a younger man. “Which is not to suggest that the Welsh-born actor doesn’t give another intelligent, powerful portrayal,” wrote critic David Stratton, “it’s just that the believability gap looms large.” Regardless, Hopkins — with three prior lead actor noms and one supporting — can never be counted out of the Oscar race.

Stratton added that Kidman “extends her range,” and that her “sensuality and passion are raw.” Perhaps Kidman’s biggest competition for Oscar gold could be herself, with another meaty role in “Cold Mountain.”

The young Miller brings sensitivity and conflicted emotions to bear as someone who yearns to be accepted on his own terms, and is one of the year’s most exciting newcomers. Ed Harris, as Faunia’s estranged husband, and Gary Sinise as frequent Roth alter-ego Nathan Zuckerman, top a fine supporting cast.

Tech work is top flight, from the late Jean-Yves Escoffier’s rich lensing to Oscar-winning composer Rachel Portman’s sensitive score to Rita Ryack’s contemporary and period costumes to David Gropman’s nuanced production design.

While some might consider this a return to form for Benton, mixed reviews could influence Acad voters.

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