Anthony Hopkins plays Coleman Silk, a classics professor retired in the New England college town where he spent his illustrious career, and where -- powered by Viagra -- he's indiscreetly begun running around with Faunia Farley (Nicole Kidman), a troubled if sensual cleaning woman less than half his age.
It's small-town scandalous, though not nearly so explosive as the secret Silk has hidden for a half-century: Though he claimed to be Jewish, and in fact left his job during an absurd late-career controversy over a supposed racial epithet, Silk is actually a light-skinned African American. His guise is especially ironic given that his nemesis is Faunia's estranged husband, Les (Ed Harris), a violently unbalanced Vietnam Vet who'd rather see his little girl dead than with another man -- especially an ancient egghead Jew.
Maybe we should view The Human Stain as the story of three old men, not only Silk but also fellow septuagenarians Benton, a writer and director best known for Kramer vs. Kramer, and Philip Roth, on whose 2000 novel the film is based. The story's a compendium of late-life fears -- getting outed as a fraud, laid low by younger rivals, and not getting it up -- and one salient fantasy: being found desirable by a beautiful younger woman.
The film is certainly strongest when telling Coleman's story (though it transforms Roth's narrator, perennial alter-ego Nathan Zuckerman, from another pensioner into a middle-aged novelist played by Gary Sinise). Told in pithy, pointed flashbacks, it's the historically resonant tragedy of a man who in order to become what he wanted had to give up who he was. Both Hopkins and Wentworth Miller, who plays Silk as a young man, convey the passion for life that finally overwhelms his intellectual caution. Benton captures the poignancy of Silk's biography in a bookended pair of love scenes: one set in the '40s, in which the great love of Coleman's life (whom he'd lose to his secret) dances a joyful striptease for her man, the other in which he watches worn, jaded Faunia do her own last-chance shimmy.
But if he's got Silk sewn up, Benton fails to adequately classify Faunia; neither can Kidman, speaking in her husky lower registers, bridge the gap between her character's role as a fantasy object and her hard existence as a stubborn outsider (which Roth emphasized). And just as Benton seems to allow Coleman and Faunia a romantic accord Roth holds back, he utterly excises the novel's at-length exploration of Les Farley's 'Nam-bred psychosis. So despite Harris' underused brilliance, Farley becomes just a bad guy standing between two woulda-been-happy lovers.