As the leading credits roll for “The Human Stain,” we watch a Volvo station wagon maneuver along the icy curves of a New England road. We see the car from an aerial view and we see a close-up of the man and woman in the car. We see the car from a third perspective. From this perspective, the car drifts in and out of view, out from behind the snowy overhangs of conifer trees and back into the rolling hills of the countryside. We are watching the car from the vantage point of a red pick-up truck. As the Volvo approaches, the truck accelerates and turns onto the road, and we watch as the truck turns suddenly into the Volvo’s lane and the Volvo swerves to avoid it, tumbling off the road and down into a ravine.
The two people who meet their death at the bottom of this ravine are a classics professor and a custodial worker. The film tells the story of the events that lead them to their final moment.
Coleman Silk (Anthony Hopkins) is an old, respected professor at a small New England college until a statement he makes in class is misinterpreted as racist and he resigns in a fit of rage. His wife dies suddenly and he begins an affair with Faunia Farley (Nicole Kidman), a working-class woman who is still being stalked by her ex-husband, Les Farley (Ed Harris), whose experiences in Vietnam have left him violent and delusional. Silk’s only friend besides Faunia is Nathan Zuckerman (Gary Sinise), a writer who narrates the film that we are watching, weaving Coleman’s past into the events of his current life.
In one marvelous scene, Nathan and Coleman are sitting on Coleman’s porch on a summer night when “Cheek to Cheek” comes on the radio. Possessed by his newfound vitality, Coleman convinces the younger man to dance with him and we watch as they twirl and bend beneath the gnat-infested light. This is Anthony Hopkins’ best scene, a scene in which his performance seems to encapsulate a whole generation of irrepressible, vibrant, American men. But Coleman’s relationship with Nathan is not the focus of the movie. Coleman’s relationship with Faunia is — or at least it seems to be.
The backdrop of the President Clinton-Monica Lewinsky scandal and Coleman’s study of classics suggest that Coleman’s sexual obsession with Faunia is intended to be the architect of his grand tragic demise. Indeed, the first sequence of the movie creates the inevitability and suspense that defined tragedy for the Greeks. The audience is supposed to see Coleman sinking deeper and deeper into a love affair that he will not abandon, holding on to it more and more as people try to convince him that it is stupid. We are supposed to think that Coleman is half-crazy when he tells his friend that his affair is worth dying for.
It is Hollywood legend that Marlon Brando could not get a role until after he broke his perfect Roman nose (in a boxing match). He was simply too beautiful.
Nicole Kidman brilliantly creates Faunia. She does not make a false step. But you can’t help thinking of Brando: as you watch her cry over the death of her children and her stepfather’s childhood abuse, you cannot help pondering all the moments of Faunia’s adolescence and adulthood when a photographer or a casting director might have discovered her and brought her the fame that Kidman’s beauty demands. You have to wonder if she should wear a fake appendage in all movies, like her fake nose in “The Hours,” just to justify her presence anywhere but a runway or a studio lot. It seems to be our fault and not hers, but Nicole Kidman’s beauty is distracting.
Her beauty plays its own unspoken role in the plot of the movie. Coleman is a man who has spent his whole adult life repressing his true identity in order to please society. The story would have us believe that with the help of Viagra and a sexually uninhibited custodial worker, he is finally rebelling in his old age. But having sex with Nicole Kidman is a rebellion against nothing. Having sex with Nicole Kidman is damn good luck.
But perhaps it is not fair to say that the filmmakers intended for us to believe that Coleman Silk was rebelling. Rebellion or not, the film is about a love affair that ends tragically. And Kidman, whose beauty at first seemed to be a liability, harnesses its very power to become the perfect actress for doomed love.