Phillip Roth’s novel The Human Stain, compressed into 110 minutes of Oscar bait, might have become an implausible melodrama. But thanks to masterfully delicate direction from Robert Benton (Nobody’s Fool) and arresting performances from Anthony Hopkins, Nicole Kidman and Ed Harris, the result is rich and moving.
When a professor (Hopkins) with a painful secret stumbles over a politically incorrect phrase, and then takes up with a “trailer-trash” temptress (Kidman), he crashes headlong into scandal and disgrace. But where other recent melodramas (Mystic River, 21 Grams) have been humorless, morose, and contrived, Stain is good-humored, warm and glimmering with hope. Roth is honest about the consequences of wrongdoing, yet he coaxes us toward compassion rather than judgment. As the fallen professor, Hopkins gives a performance both gentle and fierce — he gets his career’s first love scene and, in a bold gamble, throws himself into a startling, joyous dance with a most unlikely partner. Benton’s refusal to distill Roth’s prose into platitudes and sap leads to a remarkably resonant conclusion for one of this year’s finest films.