Loving While Living a Lie

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Stately, imperious professor Coleman Silk (Anthony Hopkins) mesmerizes and scares his students with caustic oratorical wit. Wondering aloud why two students have been absent from his class, he asks sarcastically, "Are they spooks?" He means ghosts. But the students are African American, the faculty is spineless and Coleman is soon reprimanded for uttering, however guilelessly, a racial slur. This comes as a shock to Silk, who identifies himself as the son of a Jewish saloonkeeper. Funny, you may think, Anthony Hopkins doesn't look Jewish.

Stop reading immediately if you do not know Philip Roth's 2000 novel or have not been tipped by the think pieces generated by the book and Robert Benton's elegant, thoughtful film. (Really. Stop now!) For most of his life, Coleman has held in a central fact about himself — one that should make him proud but gave him shame. He is black, though he looks white. And since his teens he has renounced his race and his family to "pass" as a Caucasian. He told no one; only he can appreciate the stark irony of his predicament.

In the first half of the 20th century, the term passing had an almost tragic poignancy. It meant not only secretly renouncing one's race but becoming a "real" American — enjoying the privileges of equality and anonymity, back when one-tenth of all citizens were denied true citizenship. If America was a club that admitted whites only, why shouldn't those who looked as if they belonged in the club try to join it? As America took small steps toward racial maturity, passing should have passed away. It did not; Roth's book was triggered by the news that the late New York Times book reviewer Anatole Broyard had been posing as white for decades.

The film, scripted by Nicholas Meyer, begins stiffly, concealing its true nature. But when Coleman opens the lair of his vulnerability to two strangers — the writer Nathan Zuckerman (Gary Sinise) and a local louche woman named Faunia Farley (Nicole Kidman) — The Human Stain warms to its characters' decency and neediness. It blooms in poignancy with flashback scenes of Coleman's '40s family — the wise mother (beautiful Anna Deavere Smith) and upright father (Harry Lennix) he disowns — and finds anchor in his affair with Faunia. "Granted, she is not my great love," Coleman says. "But she sure as hell is my last love. And that deserves some respect." So does Hopkins, whose acting here is a slow, painful flowering, and Kidman, who late in the film has a speech delivered with such musical delicacy, it becomes an aria of regret and self-knowledge.

Benton (Kramer vs. Kramer, Places in the Heart) has always attended to the subtlest emotional vectors. He sees that though this film's theme may be racial prejudice, it is really the story of a man deciding, late in life, to love the unknown — what is beyond books, pride, even self. To learn that lesson is to turn a stain into a blessing.