How is it that Nicole Kidman so excels when portraying real-life 20th century writers? Which is to say that, 10 years after her turn as Virginia Woolf in The Hours, she’s outstanding as war correspondent Martha Gellhorn, who also happened to be Ernest Hemingway’s third and most independent-minded wife, in the HBO film Hemingway & Gellhorn.
To relate the story of the couple’s highly charged relationship, which lasted about seven years, director Philip Kaufman’s big-canvas film must shuttle between Key West, Fla., Spain, New York, Cuba, Finland, England and China, among other destinations, and encompass the Spanish Civil War, the Soviet-Finnish conflict, the Japanese occupation of China and World War II. But most of all, it focuses upon the battles between two smart, politically driven, strong-willed people, a dynamic brought to credible life by resourceful filmmakers whose obvious enthusiasm for their subject matter somewhat outstrips the project’s resources and sense of disciplined focus. Set to start its HBO life May 28, the big-screen-worthy production received its world premiere out of competition at the Cannes Film Festival.
Quite apart from its dramatic and visual qualities, the first thing to be noted about this kaleidoscopic biographical study -- whose other depicted characters include John Dos Passos, Robert Capa, Joris Ivens, Chiang Kai-shek and Madame Chiang, Chou En-lai, Maxwell Perkins and Orson Welles -- is the way Kidman looks. The first image you see is of a strikingly beautiful older woman, 70ish, smoking and cementing viewer connection with her brilliant blue eyes as she scorns love and asserts her hunger for “what’s happening on the outside. Action!” She does resemble Kidman but looks too authentically old to actually be her. The question occurs: Did they get someone of the correct age -- Julie Christie, Charlotte Rampling, Vanessa Redgrave -- to play these interview scenes?
Later, in Madrid, after she sees Hemingway (pretty convincingly played by Clive Owen) banging out copy on his portable typewriter, not sitting but standing up, as he habitually did, Gellhorn just then admits her own inability to write anything at all, exposing her vulnerability to the most famous writer in the world. Portraying youthful distress, Kidman looks 28, not a year older or younger, which was Gellhorn’s age in 1936 when she met Hemingway. Aging up 25 years is one thing, but convincingly dropping 15 years? Not a hint of makeup or visual tinkering can be detected in either direction.
Kaufman, whose previous literary screen subjects have included Henry Miller, Anais Nin and the Marquis de Sade, brings his two principals together where their first encounter actually happened, at Hemingway’s divey Key West hangout Sloppy Joe’s, in a bantering, flirtatious scene worthy of a '30s Hollywood film. Gellhorn is with her parents, and Hem is married, so nothing will happen then and there. But the connection has been made, and when the heavyweight writer, now 37, decides to go to Spain, he seems as driven by his urge to join Gellhorn there as by his desire to support the Loyalist cause by participating in the making of Ivens’ anti-Franco documentary film The Spanish Earth.
The first half of Hemingway & Gellhorn, centering on the passions, turmoil and tragedy of the Spanish Civil War, is by some distance the better portion. Setting much of the action in the cavernous lobby of Madrid’s Hotel Florida (re-created in the main reception hall of the old Oakland train station), Kaufman energetically directs a great deal of human traffic in and out of the establishment, including most of the foreign press, Russian operatives and abundant Spanish prostitutes. Hem holds forth at the bar, challenges a Soviet general (Robert Duvall, who once played Stalin) to Russian roulette and joins Ivens (Lars Ulrich), Dos Passos (David Strathairn), Capa (Santiago Cabrera) and heroic local fighter Zarra (Rodrigo Santoro), usually with Gellhorn in tow, out into the countryside to capture intense battle footage intended to rally the world to the Republican cause.
Hem bides his time with Gellhorn, all the while puffing up his feathers and never letting her far from his sight; conveniently, they have rooms on the same floor. She is inspired by ace Hungarian photographer Capa -- “I want to write the way you take pictures,” she tells him -- and handles herself with such grace under pressure that Hem admits that she’s “the bravest woman I ever saw.”
Finally, when the hotel is bombarded, the heat of battle ignites the long-simmering passion between them -- in a surprisingly explicit love scene, given that there’s no indication it’s going to be that kind of movie -- debris from the ceiling cascading down upon their naked bodies.
The erotic charge between the central characters, the camaraderie among the politically committed, the excitement of life being lived in peril -- all this injects the first 70 minutes with an idea of how certain sympathetic outsiders regarded the fight for Spain. To re-create the conflict visually on a budget, Kaufman and his team have interpolated the actors, Zelig-style, into archival footage of the conflict. The effect is odd, almost surreal at times; it’s not exactly convincing but, in its own way, reasonable and charming if accepted for what it is.
As to the matter of Hemingway’s character and ideology, the script by Jerry Stahl and Barbara Turner downplays aspects of the writer’s real-life moral depredations, personal nastiness and political naivete that, if portrayed in full, might have turned viewers irreparably from him. Never a sophisticated or insightful political thinker, Hemingway had made up his mind about who the good guys and bad guys were long before he arrived in Spain and, once there, allowed himself to be used by the Communists for their own purposes. The character of Zarra would seem to be based on Dos Passos’ real-life close friend and translator Jose Robles, who, falsely accused of being a spy, was abducted and executed by Stalin’s secret police. When Hemingway took a blithe “these things happen in war” attitude toward the incident and began ridiculing Dos Passos as a softie, a permanent breach set in between the longtime friends.
The film doesn’t make much out of all this and almost seems to endorse Hemingway’s subsequent characterization of Dos Passos as a cowering lightweight, so flustered and ineffective at defending himself does the then-prominent author come across in Strathairn’s performance.
Eventually, after Hemingway’s Catholic second wife Pauline (Molly Parker) grudgingly grants him a divorce, Hem and Gellhorn are able to marry. But despite a blissful respite at Finca Vigia, the home Gellhorn found for them in Cuba, the surge of warfare worldwide proves a siren call for Gellhorn. The best interlude of the film’s second half depicts the couple’s “honeymoon” trip to China, where Hem admiringly observes his wife’s testy interview with the imperious Madame Chiang Kai-shek (a very good Joan Chen), the latter’s powerful husband sitting by her side fussing with his dentures, after which the Americans are transported blindfolded on a long boat trip to an unknown destination for a meeting with insurgent leader Chou En-lai. The cracklingly smart dialogue during this exchange, along with Anthony Brandon Wong’s superb turn as Mao Tse-tung’s longtime strategist and diplomat, makes evident why the Hemingways returned to personally predict to FDR that the Communists would eventually prevail in China.
After Gellhorn’s demonstrated preference for war zones over domesticity has basically left the marriage at a standstill, she delivers the perfect (and reportedly authentic) exit line when, returning to London to visit an injured Hem in hospital and finding his latest lady (and next wife) Mary Welsh with him, she quips, “I guess I just came by for a divorce.” Gellhorn never saw Hemingway again, and the film should have stopped there. Unfortunately, it carries on, with borderline tasteless impositions of Gellhorn’s face over those of dead victims she sees at Dachau, followed by ill-advised depictions of Hemingway’s much-later electroshock and suicide, events far from Gellhorn’s life.
The film is about a couple and their tumultuous time together, but it does tilt somewhat toward Gellhorn, due in part to Kidman but perhaps more so because this was a woman who, in a way, out-manned Hemingway; whereas before, he was the one always leaving wife and kids at home to chase some war or sporting interest, now he wants to stay at home and write fiction while she craves the latest battlefront. Not interested, as she suggests at the beginning, in sentiment, kids or a husband (she never married again), Gellhorn feeds off of conflict, leaving Hem to stew in his own sauce as a self-styled submarine “spy” on his fishing boat in that wartime hotspot, the Caribbean.
With his tousled hair, mustache and filled-out frame, Owen cuts a big, vigorous, roistering figure as Hemingway; he’s good with the repartee that defines the central relationship from the outset and easily becomes the center of attention wherever he goes. At times, one wishes to see something more going on behind the eyes or to detect more complicated feelings in him when Gellhorn resists his wishes and doesn’t go along the way women always have before, but it’s a stand-up job in a demanding role.
Kidman is terrific in certain scenes and merely very good in others; there are a few too many moments of her traipsing around Spain, blond hair flying glamorously, not knowing quite what she’s doing there. But for the most part, she rivets one’s attention, lifting the entire enterprise by her presence.
Entirely and effectively shot in Northern California, doubling for much of the world, the film looks rich and resplendent, perhaps at times even too spiffy and pristine. Geoffrey Kirkland’s production design and Ruth Myers’ costume design are nothing if not resourceful and evocative, with Rogier Stoffers’ cinematography enhancing all their color and atmospheric detail.