He won an Academy Award as serial killer Hannibal Lecter. He’s played Hitler, Nixon and Picasso. He’s been a servile butler and fearless vampire hunter Van Helsing.
Now Anthony Hopkins has one of his toughest jobs: Convincing audiences he’s black.
Hopkins and Nicole Kidman star as doomed lovers in the beautifully performed, artfully constructed “The Human Stain,” adapted from Philip Roth’s novel by director Robert Benton and screenwriter Nicholas Meyer.
As good as the leads and their co-stars are, it’s a stretch for viewers to accept Hopkins, a pasty-faced Welshman, as a light-skinned African-American who has been passing as white for most of his life.
Stretching the credibility gap further, the young actor (the biracial Wentworth Miller) plausibly pulling that ruse as the same character in flashbacks bears not a remote resemblance to Hopkins.
That makes it hard to relate to them as the same person. Miller’s introduction to the film is disorienting, triggering viewers to pause and dubiously ask themselves, “Wait, so that’s supposed to be young Anthony Hopkins?”
As the flashbacks reveal that the character grew up African-American, the film jars again when it returns to modern times, leaving movie-goers staring at Hopkins in skepticism, not quite buying him as a black man.
Roth’s novel hinges on the fact that some blacks have light enough skin to pass as white. The transition from the darker-toned Miller to Hopkins, though, feels like the cinematic cheat that it is.
The jolt is momentary, but enough distraction remains through the rest of the film to undermine somewhat the impact of the story and performances.
Teriffic acting, implausible casting
Hopkins plays Coleman Silk, a classics professor disgraced and beset by tragedy after he is ironically accused of uttering a racial slur against two black students. Quitting in fury, Coleman loses his wife to a brain embolism, and months later, two new relationships send him down a road of self-reflection.
Coleman blissfully tumbles into romance with Faunia (Kidman), a sultry campus janitor with a calamitous past. At the same time, Coleman befriends reclusive writer Nathan Zuckerman (Gary Sinise), Roth’s alter-ego in several novels, who becomes witness to Coleman’s final fling and the unmasking of his life’s secrets, which unfold with equal parts joy and melancholy.
“Granted she’s not my first love. Granted she’s not my great love,” Coleman tells Zuckerman of Faunia. “But she sure as hell is my last love.”
Faunia’s baggage includes a harsh upbringing and a menacing ex-husband Lester (Ed Harris), a volatile Vietnam vet who blames her for the deaths of their two children.
Benton and his production team admirably recreate the feel of 1940s culture and the prurient tone of the late 1990s, a time — according to Zuckerman’s narration — between communism and terrorism, when Americans could afford to obsess on the Clinton-Lewinsky scandal.
Terrific acting all around heavily compensates for the implausible casting. Hopkins lustfully leaps into the role of Coleman, a man who thought he’d seen it all and has made peace with his flaws and blunders, yet finds to his surprise that he’s not only able but eager to make more.
Kidman seems as though she just walked out of a Tennessee Williams play, blending fierce strength and damaged-goods fragility in a magnificently hushed and haunted performance. Her Faunia is another complete makeover that effaces her star-power persona as effectively as the fake nose she wore in her Academy Award-winning role as Virginia Woolf in last year’s “The Hours.”
Sinise brings depth, compassion and subtle humor to what could have been the straight-man role as Zuckerman. Harris commandeers the movie in his brief screen time, creating a dangerously unstable character that is the utter reverse of his saintly coach in “Radio.”
Along with Miller as young Coleman, able support is provided by Jacinda Barrett as Coleman’s first great love, Anna Deavere Smith as his lamenting mother and Harry Lennix as his imperious father.
The film’s examination of “racial passing” will spark thoughtful conversation among movie-goers of all colors — but not as much conversation as the idea of Hopkins playing a black man.