As swollen and heavy-handed as a bad imitation Hemingway contest, everything about “Hemingway & Gellhorn” screams vanity project, including the marquee talent, Cannes premiere (it’s not TV, after all) and timing to achieve maximum exposure during the current awards window. None of that, however, can obscure the movie’s hollow center — or an overlong period piece that’s earnest and handsome, true, but strangely inert, and perhaps because Ernest Hemingway’s larger-than-life persona is so familiar, frequently feels stilted and cliched. For history and Hemingway fans who might want to like the movie, there’s no loss in bidding farewell to its charms.
For starters, the title billing is a bit inaccurate, since the narrative is really the story of Martha Gellhorn (Nicole Kidman), an intrepid war correspondent who dazzled a then-married Hemingway, becoming his lover and eventually one of his wives.
Gellhorn, who died in 1998, huskily narrates the whole affair in flashback, beginning with her and Papa’s first encounter in the Key West bar Sloppy Joe’s, where the famous author — still spattered with blood from a Marlin he’s caught — snappily says, “Big game’s no fun if it just wanders up to you.”
At first glance, Clive Owen seems like an inspired choice to play Hemingway, but he’s reduced to snarl and swagger. Then again, virtually every choice by director Philip Kaufman proves questionable, from the deadening use of grainy footage meant to approximate old newsreels to the over-the-top score composed by Javier Navarrette.
Not only does the washed-out imagery prove distracting, but if the goal was to heighten the movie’s authenticity or replicate the documentary Hemingway’s working on, the device simply can’t erase the star power of the Kidman-Owen pairing.
The main narrative surrounds the central couple bonding as they chronicle the heroic struggle of anti-fascists in Spain, where they’re joined by writer John Dos Passos (a squandered David Strathairn), among others. To offer some clue as to the movie’s overall tone, when the pair finally consummate all that steamy flirtation, bombs literally explode in the background, exhibiting all the subtlety of James Bond credits.
Of course, that’s after Hemingway sees Gellhorn covered with blood — for him, an aphrodisiac. “You’re more of a man than most men I’ve met,” he grunts.
Despite Kaufman’s impressive resume, it’s a long way back to “The Unbearable Lightness of Being,” which in terms of his filmography is “Hemingway’s” closest (albeit much more satisfying) cousin.
The steadfast focus on the squabbling duo’s globe-trotting, tumultuous relationship wastes what could have been a splendid supporting cast, including Molly Parker as Hemingway’s censorious first wife, Tony Shalhoub, Peter Coyote, Parker Posey and Joan Chen as Chiang Kai-shek’s English-speaking wife. Robert Duvall also turns up in an uncredited cameo as a nutty Russian general.
The best perf, frankly, is delivered by San Francisco, convincingly standing in (with the help of effects) for all those exotic 1930s locales.
Considerable effort and care clearly went into that process, but unlike the city by the Bay, there’s not much heart left in “Hemingway & Gellhorn.”