Dir. Philip Kaufman
(2012, Not Rated, 154 min)

One of the hardest professions to capture on film is writing. Though its end result can be thrilling, its process can be quite boring to look at. Whether by typewriter, computer, pen and paper, or stone and chisel, there’s nothing interesting about watching a person write, and it’s only slightly more interesting to hear someone talk about writing. The best films have approached the process of writing creatively from the inside out: Stranger Than Fiction with its reality shaped by an author’s decisions, Adaptation with its story that transformed right along with the screenplay of its main character.

Hemingway & Gellhorn does the other thing: it focuses on Martha Gellhorn‘s angst about her art – “I want to write the way you take pictures,” she tells an admired photographer in one scene – and the single-minded rat-tat-tat urgency of Ernest Hemingway as he furiously pounds the keys of a typewriter. Once in a while they say very ponderous things about their craft and sound very silly. History remembers them as great writers, and I have no grounds to dispute that; I haven’t read their work. But I suspect it’s more exciting to read their stories and articles than it is to listen to them talk about writing them in this film.

This is a historical biopic that follows the romance between Hemingway and pioneering war reporter Gellhorn during times of international strife, from the Spanish Civil War to World War II, with detours also to Finland and China. It’s broadly melodramatic, sweeping, long at more than two-and-a-half hours, sometimes effective, other times overwrought. Clive Owen and Nicole Kidman play the title pair as larger-than-life personalities to match their reputations: he a boozing, jealous, womanizing, self-aggrandizing lout whose bad behavior is meant to be offset by his tortured genius; and she a strong-willed, politically passionate woman who refuses to shrink from the violence and sexism all around her; had this film been made in a different era, it’s not hard to imagine Katharine Hepburn playing the role.

Whether or not the film gets the characters’ personalities right is not for me to say. But it plays them big when I would have preferred small – an intimate, nuanced look at their lives and romance instead of billboards loudly announcing their boldest character traits. I much preferred the scenes in which Kidman plays Gellhorn as an old woman, recounting her life story to reporters. Kidman, aided by subtle and convincing makeup, gives the older Gellhorn a lived-in expression; a huskier, more experienced voice; a sense of a life thoroughly and sometimes painfully lived.

Director Philip Kaufman gets in the way with an irritating visual style that alternates between highly saturated colors and an attempt to mimic the grainy textures of newsreel footage. He switches often, self-consciously, and while the saturated colors often produce beautiful imagery, the newsreel-style shots look hokey, and it’s worse when Kaufman tries to Forrest-Gump his actors into actual footage of key events or alongside major historical figures. One shot of Kidman and Owen with Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt looks especially awkward. The primary problem with this visual style is that I was never sure what Kaufman was getting at. If he wanted his actors to appear as if they were truly part of the events, he achieved the opposite, emphasizing the artificiality of scenes instead of making them seem more real. Often, I was reminded that I was watching a melodrama instead of being absorbed by one.

 

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