Hemingway & Gellhorn: Cannes Review
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.”