review for The Human Stain on AllMovie

The Human Stain (2003)
by Derek Armstrong review

Few titles convey unspecific malaise as well as The Human Stain, and few films address that malaise with such enviable starkness. Director Robert Benton brings to bear a career's worth of exploring the complexity of human relationships, and the top-to-bottom stellar cast backs him up nicely in a film that flew under the radar, but shouldn't have. Anthony Hopkins may not be far afield from his typical stately intellectual, but Nicole Kidman gives a harrowing demonstration of her range in the role of a dead-end divorcée, and Ed Harris exudes frightening menace as a war veteran whose instabilities might manifest themselves in any way, at any time. Not only does each of the main characters -- who include Gary Sinise as a withdrawn cancer survivor -- get enough screen time to struggle with their very different and very personal injuries, but a healthy stretch of Nicholas Meyer's adroit screenplay delves into the distant past, seamlessly. It's in this portion that the film develops a new, richer layer of meaning that couldn't be divined from either the trailers or the casting of the actors. Yet the film's present tense is also dense with currency and insight, smartly set during the Monika Lewinsky scandal as a means of criticizing our guilt-by-accusation society. That Hopkins' professor could be ruined over his correct usage of a term that's been bastardized into a racial slur echoes several prominent real-world instances of political correctness gone haywire. Although perhaps a little thematically obvious, setting the film in perpetually wintry conditions reminds a viewer of other powerful films involving emotional scarring, such as Affliction or The Ice Storm. The Human Stain is well worthy of joining their ranks.