For any filmmaker, dramatizing the life and times of a well-known and highly documented individual frequently stands as a no-win situation. Change too much and people will question your ethics as a storyteller. Change nothing are you are left with the alienating chaos of real life.
On the surface, Ernest Hemingway would seem to be the ideal model for a film adaptation. Between his travels, his demons and his relationships, Hemingway seemed to live every moment of his life in the hope that someone would make a movie of it.
That last example serves as the basis of the HBO film Hemingway & Gellhorn, which chronicles the (of course) tumultuous affair between the author (Clive Owen) and famed war correspondent Martha Gellhorn (Nicole Kidman).
Upon watching the film, one quickly realizes that the ordering of the names in the title is bit of a misnomer, as it is Gellhorn who plays the central figure in this tale. The film itself is even structured via the device of having an elder Gellhorn giving her life story to a documentary crew.
The story naturally begins with the first meeting between Gellhorn and Hemingway at a bar in the Key West in 1936. By this point, Hemingway is already the talk of the literary town with the release of such book as The Sun Also Rises and A Farewell to Arms. The two instantly find that they have a natural rapport and, despite the fact that Hemingway is already married, find themselves drawn to one another.
The two then travel to Spain in order to help film footage for a documentary on the Spanish Civil War. There, the sparks truly ignite. Shortly afterwards, Hemingway divorces his wife, and the two marry. But, as anyone familiar with history knows all too well, a happy ending was not in the cards.
Throughout the story, the filmmakers make it abundantly clear that they’ve done their homework. A bit too clear, perhaps. Hemingway & Gellhorn is the kind of film where characters recite their respective résumés upon first entering a scene, and the screenwriters awkwardly incorporate famous quotations from the real-life individuals into the dialogue.
Certainly one expects a bit more from the likes of director Philip Kaufman, who has extensive experience in dramatizing the lives of famous writers such as Henry Miller (Henry & June) and Marquis de Sade (Quills).
Likewise, co-writer Barbara Turner also penned the fantastic 2000 Jackson Pollock biopic Pollock while co-writer Jerry Stahl, like Hemingway, brings with him a well-documented history of substance abuse and self-destructive behavior (Permanent Midnight). Rather than these individuals pooling their resources together to make something special, however, the result is an entertaining but often plodding biopic that makes one long for the power and passion found in some of those other credits.
Made on a modest budget, the production does an admirable job at conveying the film’s vast, globe-trotting scope. Where the proverbial strings begin to show comes with the decision to digitally insert the actors, Zelig-style, into archival footage. While this technique works adequately at times, it fails miserably at others. For instance, a scene towards the end where Gellhorn’s horrified face is superimposed over real-life footage of dead bodies at the Auschwitz concentration camps feels horrifically inappropriate.
Furthermore, the filmmakers’ predilection for beginning each scene with a grainy, sepia-toned and/or black-and-the-white news footage aesthetic too often evokes the kind of cheap production value that they try so hard to circumvent.
In terms of the acting, there’s little room for complaint. At 45, Kidman remains a fetching and powerful screen presence. Here, she captures Gellhorn’s idealistic, gung-ho leftism without making herself sound overly self-righteous.
Moreover, few actors are better suited to the role of Hemingway than Clive Owen. Yet, while Owen easily embodies Hemingway’s extraordinary charisma (and certainly his legendary temper), his performance is often undermined by the British actor’s inability to hold his American accent. Owen may very well be one of the great actors working today but—like Anthony Hopkins and Michael Caine before him—his rich English baritone is far too distinctive to mask.
Though Kidman and Owen are certainly not without chemistry, the script does them little favors. As written and portrayed in the film, Gellhorn and Hemingway come across less like fully formed characters and more like Bogart-Bacall archetypes that just happen to be based on real people. For their part, Kaufman, Turner and Stahl seem more interested in feeding into Gellhorn’s and Hemingway’s overstuffed, legendary personas rather than bringing them down to earth and portraying them as the flawed, yet compelling characters they no doubt were.
Worse yet, the film starts to lose its footing the moment the two become a couple. For instance, the scene where Gellhorn and Hemingway finally consummate their relationship occurs, of all places, during a barrage on their hotel where debris falls from the ceiling and walls collapse around them. This juxtaposition between the couple’s impassioned coupling and destructive wartime imagery is, at once, both laughable and highly distasteful.
Likewise, though Kaufman coaxes some fun performances from Robert Duvall, David Strathairn and Tony Shalhoub (even infamous Metallica drummer Lars Ulrich manages to hold his own in a roomful of professionals), the parts are often too brief to leave much of an impression.
The overall result is a film that more closely resembles an expensive and glorified game of “make believe” than the epic story about war and love that it aims to be.
Director: Philip Kaufman
Writer: Barbara Turner, Jerry Stahl
Starring: Nicole Kidman, Clive Owen, David Strathairn, Tony Shalhoub
Release Date: April 2 (DVD/Blu-Ray)