There’s a moment of pure joy — it may be the only one — in this Job-like tale of Coleman Silk (Anthony Hopkins), a black man who has spent his life posing as a Jew, a classics professor at a New England college. Now Coleman has lost his job for uttering an unintended racial slur. He pours his rage into the ear of Nathan Zuckerman (Gary Sinise), a reclusive novelist who knows Coleman’s story is a modern Greek tragedy. That includes his affair with thirtyish Faunia Farley (Nicole Kidman ), a janitor who carries her own emotional scars. Coleman can’t even protect Faunia from her ex-husband (a superb Ed Harris), a Vietnam vet who beats her.
But wait, I was talking about joy. It comes when Coleman, on a visit to Nathan’s cabin, hears Fred Astaire singing “Cheek to Cheek” on the radio and gets up to dance. Better yet, he gets Nathan to dance with him. In that exhilarating moment, director Robert Benton damn near solves the problem of filming Philip Roth’s unfilmable novel: In letting joy seep in, he takes measure of what these characters have lost.
Ideas are being wrestled with here. Screenwriter Nicholas Meyer can’t shape them into a coherent whole, as Roth did on the page. But Benton has a gift for deft brush strokes. He captures the late 1990s, when Coleman and Faunia hook up just as the nation scolds Bill and Monica for their White House blow job. Later, he flashes back to the 1940s, when the young Coleman (Wentworth Miller) is scolded by his mom (Anna Deavere Smith) for bringing home his white girlfriend (Jacinda Barrett) without preparing either one for the other. The incident sparks his decision to pass for white. Keep an eye on Miller (biracial himself) — he’s a sensational new talent.
As for Hopkins and Kidman, they are both as mesmerizing as they are miscast. Kidman is too much the babe to pass as the janitor with the “inexpressive bone face,” as Roth describes her. But she makes Faunia’s loneliness palpable. And if you can’t accept that Welshman Hopkins is an African-American from New Jersey, there’s no doubting his ability to locate the character’s grit and wounded grace. Why pretend? The Human Stain is heavy going. It’s the flashes of dramatic lightning that make it a trip worth taking.