| Movie lovers are a fickle bunch. If a filmmaker or an actor sticks too close to a given type of film, they complain. But they also complain if said filmmaker or actor strays too far from a given type of film. Certainly these folks are going to complain when they see Philip Kaufman's new Hemingway & Gellhorn. It tells about a tormented romance between writers, much like Kaufman's earlier Henry & June (1990). It also tells a story of lovers during a turbulent time of social unrest, like Kaufman's The Unbearable Lightness of Being (1988). Others will point out that it's Kaufman's third film about a major writer, after Henry & June and Quills (2000). And like all of those films, Hemingway & Gellhorn does not shy away from sex.
We can choose to see these similarities as laziness, or a failure to stretch, but it can also be seen as an artist honing his particular area of expertise. And in that, Hemingway & Gellhorn is a magnificent film, joining the ranks of Kaufman's best.
Nicole Kidman stars as Martha Gellhorn. Like June, she is given the slightly more important story arc since the man's story is already fairly well known. Not to mention that Kaufman seems to have taken Gellhorn's line about not wanting to be a "footnote in someone else's life" to heart. The movie begins when these two meet, though Hemingway (Clive Owen) is already married. (Gellhorn would eventually become the third of his four wives.) Hemingway is also already world famous, riding the success of A Farewell To Arms and its 1932 Hollywood film adaptation.
Though plenty of women seem content to sacrifice themselves to become Hemingway's muse, Gellhorn does not do that. She wants to be a war correspondent, and she's not happy unless she's near the front lines, trying to put a human face on a huge catastrophe. Indeed, Hemingway urges her on, at least in the early scenes.
It's around this time that Hemingway becomes involved with the documentary filmmaker Joris Ivens (played, astoundingly, by Lars Ulrich, the drummer for Metallica). Together, along with writer John Dos Passos (David Strathairn), they work on an anti-fascist film The Spanish Earth, made during the Spanish Civil War. Kaufman even includes the -- apparently accurate -- moment in which Hemingway fires Orson Welles from the job of narrating the film.
That adventure sets the tone for Hemingway & Gellhorn, with both writers trying to assert themselves in the most extreme ways possible. Sometimes they sync up, as when they pay a visit to Madame Chiang (Joan Chen) and Chiang Kaishek (Larry Tse). Other times they are at odds. Kidman's tender narration helps ground their arguments, giving them an emotional logic that makes their unraveling all the more tragic.
Kaufman and the legendary editor Walter Murch use an effective technique of changing the color film stock to various other tones and textures, like black and white or sepia tones, adding scratches, and even adding still frames to represent photographs. It gives a startling immediacy to these historical moments. Overall, Kaufman manages to shot what looks like a huge epic, set all over the world, for a fairly small budget. Similar to his early masterpiece The Right Stuff (1983), he cleverly disguised bits of the Bay Area as various other global regions.
Fans may gripe that Owen doesn't really resemble or sound like Mr. Hemingway, but it's his performance that counts, and he captures the essence of the man; the disbelief quickly goes away. Kidman is extraordinary here, giving one of her best and most purely luminous performances. She's absolutely radiant, as if she has been refreshed after a handful of dull Hollywood efforts. Kaufman calls on a host of talented people to fill out the much smaller roles. Aside from the aforementioned Ulrich, Strathairn, Chen, and Tse, there's Robert Duvall as a Russian general, Tony Shalhoub, Jeffrey Jones, Peter Coyote, Mark Pellegrino, Connie Nielsen as a mysterious woman in China, and Molly Parker and Parker Posey as two more of Hemingway's wives.
Like many of our best filmmakers, Kaufman is having a harder and harder time getting films financed and distributed. Since Henry & June he has only made four films in 22 years, including this one. So it's happy news that Hemingway & Gellhorn will have a special showing at San Francisco's Castro Theatre on Sunday May 27, followed by its May 28 premiere on HBO. Don't miss it.