Thanks to Nicole Kidman’s headstrong, passionate, and balls-to-the-wall performance as famed war correspondent, Martha Gellhorn — more recognized in history as the third wife of Ernest Hemingway — I doubt Gellhorn will ever be regarded as a footnote again. The title of HBO Film’s newest made-for-TV movie is incredibly deceptive, but perhaps purposefully so. We expect both Hemingway and Gellhorn to equally be front and center in this biopic of sorts, but it’s Gellhorn who fills up two thirds of on-screen time. Therefore, a title such as Gellhorn & Hemingway, or just Gellhorn, would have been more appropriate if we’re speaking strictly about which actor/character was featured more prominently. In fact, Nicole Kidman’s revelatory portrayal of Gellhorn is so wonderfully perfect and convincing that I can almost forgive director Philip Kaufman’s sloppily executed war biopic. To add bigger insult to injury, Clive Owen brings forth an uninteresting, drunkard, plight of a man with his role as Hemingway, making him seem more of a James Bond-esque anti-hero that met too many shaken, not stirred martinis he lost battle after battle with. Those looking for a Clive Owen comeback might be disappointed in Clive’s approach to the enigma that is Ernest Hemingway. Corey Stoll, as invisible as his performance may have been in Midnight in Paris, does a finer job illuminating Hemingway’s brilliance underneath an anchoring psychosis. Having never read or heard of Ernest Hemingway, one may not comprehend the legendary status surrounding the 20th century’s most prolific writer if you only had Clive Owen’s portrayal to go by. Hemingway may be surrounded by various intellectuals in Hemingway & Gellhorn, but neither Kauffman nor Owen seem to care about Hemingway’s own intelligence factor. Brilliance may be within Hemingway, but to an audience viewing Hemingway & Gellhorn, it remains ever illusive.
Set between the mid 1930s until the beginning of the second world war, Hemingway & Gellhorn follows the war correspondent assignments — or adventures, according to Hemingway — of our two titular characters. After first meeting in Key West at a bar called “Sloppy Joes,” Hemingway becomes obsessively drawn to Collier Magazine’s most prominent female writer, Martha Gellhorn. Martha, herself intrigued by Hemingway’s enigmatic persona, visits his home shortly afterward only to discover Hemingway and some of his high-profile friends, underappreciated novelist John Dos Pasos (David Strathairn) and Dutch filmmaker Joris Ivans (Lars Ulrich), are making a documentary film that captures the Spaniard freedom fighters’ quest for liberation against the Spanish regime, known as the Spanish Civil War. Following this narrative set-up, Hemingway and Pasos go to the Spanish front lines to aid and film the rebels, Hemingway more for the adventure and glory, and Pasos more for his hidden love of famed freedom fighter, Zarra (a character based on Pasos’ Spanish translator and friend, Jose Robles). Gellhorn is also sent to Spain as a war correspondent for Collier, where she crosses paths once more with Hemingway, commencing the start of one of history’s most famous war flings.
The beginning half of the film is rather choppy in pace and unable to concretely define its narrative. It’s as if Kaufman was so in a rush to get to the now-infamous sex scene between Gellhorn and Hemingway that he forgot about the serious nature of war itself. There are many moments in the film where you feel as though Hemingway, Gellhorn, and Kaufman aren’t taking anything seriously. I admire the use of war reel footage, black and white filtering, and sepia hues to preserve the story’s historical integrity, but the sporadic use of these effects made the film seem silly, outdated, cliche, and pretentious all at once. I wanted to care more about the war effort and the freedom fighters that Gellhorn and Hemingway seemed so passionate about, but when you have the film’s pivotal sex-scene occurring in the middle of a hotel bombing, how can I possibly take things seriously? Oh sure, it was steamy to be sure, but am I watching HBO’s True Blood or a biopic of Ernest Hemingway and Martha Gellhorn? It was hard to tell at some points, but that may just be HBO attempting to please its regular audience.
Most of the supporting cast in Hemingway & Gellhorn are perfectly acceptable if slightly underused. Blink, and you might miss Robert Duvall as a Russian general whose forces are supporting the Spanish freedom fighters. Duvall and Hemingway almost come to blows in a scene that’s as embarrassing to watch as it must have been for Gellhorn to witness in real life. Testosterone-driven American and Russian men playing a game of Russian roulette? Oh, that’s surely original. The script too often tries to throw in scenarios we have seen far too often — the aforementioned one being one of many — and dispenses war idioms as frequently as plane bombings. At one point, Hemingway even pokes fun at Strathairn’s Pasos after he remarks that the irrigated water made possible by the Spanish rebellion “tastes like freedom.” Hemingway cringes, as do we all at home, and goes on to say that the idiom was the worst line Pasos ever came up with (he didn’t). With so many acclaimed writers in the film, you would imagine screenwriter Jerry Stahl’s dialogue to be more poetic, original, and intellectually-worded. That is not that case here.
Strathairn himself might be up for “Best Supporting Actor” come Emmy time. His closeted portrayal of Pasos is touching and incredibly genuine; it breaks your heart when Hemingway cuts off ties with Pasos after a Russian coverup goes awry. I wish there was more to see from Stathairn, but for what he delivers in so little time on-screen, he’s magnificent. Parker Posey, “Queen of the Indies,” shows up at the end as Hemingway’s fling post-Gellhorn but she barely does anything noteworthy. Posey is known for her sly demeanor and magnetic presence, but she’s given a role that could’ve been cast to any random actor. Like Duvall, Posey is unjustly utilized in Hemingway & Gellhorn. The last major player in the supporting cast is Tony Shaloub, who plays Kohlstov, a famed Russian journalist who serves as the earpiece for Soviet Russia. Shaloub teeters on the edge of ridiculous with his twirling-mustache Russian accent, but he shines with subtle menace in a scene where he tells Hemingway to separate himself from Pasos — a homosexual ally for Soviet Russia is no ally at all, according to Kohlstov. I wish Shaloub was as brilliant in that scene as we was in the rest of the film, but he saved his absolute best work for that last scene, and I guess one cannot fault him too much for doing so.
The film’s second half is much stronger since we see Gellhorn wisely separating herself from Hemingway, whose jealousy and rage over Gellhorn’s independence and war correspondent fame threatens to consume him. Nicole Kidman provides a Katharine Hepburn-esque spunk to her portrayal of Gellhorn without all the staged drama. Gellhorn knows Hemingway is a menace and anchor that will weigh her down, but apparently he intrigues her enough to remain in her life for quite some time. Kidman and Owen’s sexual chemistry is believable, but romantically the two — both the characters they portray and the actors themselves — never come across as an authentic couple. Never once was I rooting for this relationship to work out. Gellhorn seems so much stronger and more artistically talented when she’s off on her own doing her war correspondent assignments. Hemingway, perhaps serving as a phallic metaphor, does nothing but give Gellhorn writer’s block. She feels intimidated by all his accomplishments, both as a writer and as a man who makes no apologies for being in the limelight. Kidman’s Gellhorn is a feminist without the stereotypical harshness that befalls such feminist pioneers in history. She knows that her work for humanity comes before any relationship borne from love, and one cannot help by root for Gellhorn throughout the entire duration of the film. At nearly three hours, the one component of this film that will have you entranced from beginning to end is Kidman — she is the rowboat that escaped from the sunken Titanic. Without Kidman, Hemingway & Gellhorn would cease to be interesting or meaningful.
Perhaps the strongest moment in the film comes at the very end when Gellhorn stumbles upon the Holocaust victims whose emaciated bodies have been piled over each other in various ditches. For all the silliness Hemingway & Gellhorn contains, much to my chagrin, this was the one moment where I was struck emotionally, kicked in the gut and unable to escape the hollow feeling inside. Gellhorn’s reaction to the tragic imagery of the massacred Holocaust victims was palpable to all, and Kidman’s handling of such a pivotal moment in Gellhorn’s war correspondent career stands as one of her finest acting moments on-screen. Thanks to Nicole Kidman, Martha Gellhorn is now one of my favorite female figures in history, who I wouldn’t have known about as being so important had I not seen Hemingway & Gellhorn. It’s just a shame that Kidman was the one bright star in a film littered with meteors. Those expecting deep insight into the legend known as Ernest Hemingway will leave disappointed, scratching their heads as to why Hemingway was regarded as so prolific in the first place. Kaufman attempted his best at capturing a more youthful audience with this watered down biopic, but I believe all that viewers will remember about the film was Kidman’s spellbinding performance and that over-the-top, infuriatingly unrealistic sex scene. Hemingway & Gellhorn isn’t a waste of a film, nor will you have an unpleasant time watching it, but there are too many flaws that strip away the gravity of its historical significance. With a more aesthetically-capable filmmaker at the helm and a stronger script to work with, we may have seen a sleeker, more polished film with a deeper understanding of Hemingway and his intellect. Instead, we have Nicole Kidman to thank for her portrait of Martha Gellhorn, the one salvageable component in an otherwise problematic piece of biopic fiction.
Tags: Clive Owen, David Strathairn, HBO, hemingway and gellhorn, nicole kidman, robert duvall