May 29, 2012

THE SKED REVIEW: “Hemingway & Gellhorn”

More articles by »
Written by: Mitch Salem
Tags: , , , , , , , , , , ,



It wasn’t so long ago that the announcement of an epic period love story starring Nicole Kidman and Clive Owen as war correspondent Martha Gellhorn and legendary novelist Ernest Hemingway, directed by Philip Kaufman, the man behind The Right Stuff, The Unbearable Lightness of Being and Henry & June, premiering at the Cannes Film Festival, would have signaled the arrival of a major player in the year’s Oscar stakes.  But even Harvey Weinstein has lost his taste for that genre, and so instead HEMINGWAY & GELLHORN made its debut last night as an HBO original film, no doubt at a fraction of the budget a big-screen version of the story would have allowed.  

Much applause is due to HBO for taking on the hugely ambitious project, and there’s a great deal in H&G to admire.  Nicole Kidman gives one of her best, and certainly one of the most likable performances of her career as Gellhorn, a tough, brilliant, ready for anything modern woman who traces a professional and personal path from the Spanish Civil War, through battles in Finland and China, to stowing away as a fake nurse on a World War II transport ship so she can be on shore for D-Day–all while enjoying (and then suffering through) her tempestuous romance and marriage with Hemingway.  The Katherine Hepburn/Rosalind Russell role of a woman who’s sharp, funny, passionate, endlessly eager and yet vulnerable suits Kidman beautifully, and she’s a pleasure to watch.

Hemingway, however, is a problem.  The movies have always had difficulty depicting Ernest Hemingway in any kind of believable way, because in a mode far more familiar in our current age of celebrity, at some point he became “Hemingway,” a character in itself.  Everything he says or does on screen seems like a self-conscious pose, “Papa” with his big-game trophies, his booze-guzzling and his macho ways.  (It’s why he was so ripe for hilarious parody in Midnight in Paris.)  Clive Owen, a very fine and subtle actor, isn’t the man to find a way out of this trap, and his performance comes off like someone doing an imitation of Spencer Tracy playing Sterling Hayden’s character in The Long Goodbye.  The script, by Jerry Stahl and Barbara Turner, doesn’t try to examine Hemingway very meaningfully, and is instead filled with self-conscious “Hemingway”-speak, like (to Gellhorn) “There’s nothing to writing–all you do is sit at your typewriter and bleed,” and “Get into the ring and see what you can do.”  He calls Gellhorn by adjectives like “Elegant” or “Intrepid” when he isn’t addressing her by her last name or describing her as a “creamy bitch” (that’s meant as a compliment).  Any epic political romance is going to face comparison with Warren Beatty’s Reds, and unlike the historical figures in that film (notably Jack Nicholson’s superb Eugene O’Neill), Hemingway here is just a simplistic kiss-her-or-punch-her kind of guy.

Another issue is a strangely recurring lack that runs through Kidman’s career.  Although she’s one of the most beautiful women in the world, willing and able to portray her sexuality far more than most of her peers, she’s hardly ever successfully ignited romantic sparks with a co-star on screen.  That’s true of Hugh Jackman in Australia, Jude Law in Cold Mountain, and the 3 films she made with former husband Tom Cruise.  (The extreme stylization of Moulin Rouge provided something of an exception.)  For the most part, perhaps cannily, she’s avoided full-on romances, doing much better in films like To Die For, The Others and her Oscar-winning role in The Hours, but here the romance is everything, and she and Owen never quite convince as all-encompassing lovers.  (It doesn’t help that the sex scenes are mostly howlers:  they first couple literally as the hotel they’re in is being blown up around them, and later Hemingway pulls her against a wall just before he goes on stage at a charity event, and ruts with her backstage at a Cuban nightclub while showgirls change a few feet away.)

Despite the flaws at the center of Hemingway & Gellhorn, it’s absorbing and, even at 2 1/2 hours, never a bore.  Kaufman makes the most of his limited budget by pushing the techniques he and his brilliant editor Walter Murch (whose credits include Apocalypse Now and The English Patient) had pioneered in Unbearable Lightness of Being, digitally blending new footage of Kidman and Owen into newsreel sequences from Spain and China, and using black-and-white and adjusted color to make the mix nearly seamless.  The movie’s first hour, set during the Spanish Civil War, where Gellhorn finds both her writing voice and her love for Hemingway, is very pleasurable in an old-fashioned movie way.  Probably because of Kaufman’s involvement, the film is dotted with wonderful actors in small roles, like Molly Parker and Parker Posey as other women in Hemingway’s life, Peter Coyote as his editor Maxwell Perkins, David Strathairn as John Dos Passos, Tony Shalhoub as a Russian quasi-journalist, and an unbilled Robert Duvall (who worked with Kaufman 40 years ago in The Great Northfield Minnesota Raid) as a Russian general with a crush on Gellhorn.  Cinematographer Rogier Stoffers and production designer Geoffrey Kirkland do a fine job making the mostly Northern California locations sub for half the world.

It’s sad that with the prevalence of fantasy sagas, and the movie business’s concentration on youthful audiences, large-scale historical sagas that used to be the studios’ prestige bread and butter have largely disappeared.  (This holiday season will only bring the musical Les Miserables and Baz Luhrmann’s very odd-looking 3D Great Gatsby.)  Hemingway & Gellhorn, imperfect as it is, is a reminder of how enjoyable that kind of drama can be.

About the Author

Mitch Salem
MITCH SALEM has worked on the business side of the entertainment industry for 20 years, as a senior business affairs executive and attorney for such companies as NBC, ABC, USA, Syfy, Bravo, and BermanBraun Productions, and before that, at the NY law firm of Weil, Gotshal & Manges. During all that, he has more or less constantly been going to the movies and watching TV, and writing about both since the 1980s. His film reviews also currently appear on and In addition, he is co-writer of an episode of the television series "Felicity."