Ernest Hemingway is the kind of grandiose figure that it seems it would be difficult to contain within the framework of a feature film, and the decision to pair his life with that of his ex-wife Martha Gellhorn only adds to the task at hand. But with the leisure of a two-and-a-half hour running time, a starry ensemble, the guiding hands of director Philip Kaufman (“The Right Stuff,” “The Unbearable Lightness Of Being“) and the support of HBO, “Hemingway & Gellhorn” is a messy, but still worthwhile film about the two writers that does a strong job of bringing their complex, explosive and committed relationship to the big screen.
Penned by Jerry Stahl and Barbara Turner, the film is essentially divided into two parts: the first half of the movie follows the pair as they meet and then find themselves in Spain, both embedded in the battle against Franco and the fascists as the citizens try to maintain control of their democratically elected government. There, they are joined by documentarian Joris Ivens (Lars Ulrich) who is shooting “This Spanish Earth” along with a gaggle of other supporters including famed author John Dos Passos (David Straithairn). The second half of the movie zeroes in closer on their relationship, as Hemingway divorces his wife Pauline (Molly Parker), marries Gellhorn, and the pair fuck and fight and travel around the world. Thanks to Hemingway’s advice and instruction, Gellhorn has become a seasoned war correspondent, while he continues to write as furiously as ever, with each depature of his muse causing a fresh row.
In short, there is a lot going on in “Hemingway & Gellhorn,” which sees the pair dip in and out of some of the most brutal events in recent history, as well as tracking their lives over a few decades. Attempting to steer the story is an unnecessary voiceover device, with an older Gellhorn relaying the plot (and her feelings) intermittently, and redundantly, more often than not. The film would be fine without it, and that’s largely thanks to the mostly good writing and some great performances by Owen and Kidman. Last year, Corey Stoll rightfully earned praise for his just-slightly-over-the-top portrayal of Hemingway in Woody Allen‘s “Midnight In Paris.” But here, Owen maintains the author’s hyper-masculine personality, but delivers it at just the right pitch, and most crucially finds the vulnerability, doubt and desperation he had underneath that compelled some of his brutish and cruel behavior. Owen hasn’t been this memorable in years and it’s really great to see him firing on all cylinders in a project worthy of his talents (and we’d guess an Emmy nomination isn’t out of the question). Meanwhile, Kidman almost makes it look too easy, getting the flinty personality required to roll with Hemingway just right, and transmitting exactly the stuff Gellhorn was made of that allowed her to endure the rough terrain her assignments led her to. She’s tough yet sympathetic, sexy yet independent, and Kidman captures all those qualities with a very strong turn.
The lengthy running time gives the movie room to breathe, but it also leaves space for it to sprawl as well, with some tangents and threads left dangling here and there, but nothing the prevents the film from moving forward. However, the casting does leave something to be desired. While a Brit and an Aussie tackle the lead roles admirably, when it comes to Robert Duvall and Tony Shalhoub wearing Russian accents in their brief roles early in the movie, it’s a bit embarrassing as they come off more theatrical than believable. And as for Ulrich, we’re not sure what that was he was attempting in a role that was woefully miscast. Most of his acting comes courtesy of his five o’clock shadow. The talented Parker isn’t given much to do other than be prissy and angry in a role that is really too small for her, while slightly swinging the other way, Straithairn is so affecting as the sensitive dos Passos, you kind of wish he had a movie of his own (or more screen time).
But no matter how you look at it, Kaufman had an incredible amount of talent to work with (an extended cameo late in the film proves just how willing people were to show up and work with him) but unwisely chooses some over-the-top flourishes that run counter to the grounded work he’s getting out of the cast. For some reason — probably budgetary — the film switches to a faux-damaged-film stock/sepia tone treatment whenever scenes of battle or anything that looks like it would’ve been expensive is shot. Some pretty gaudy use of green screen, especially for distant locations, is jarring and distracting and the entire effect is one where it seems the filmmakers are trying to cover up stuff they didn’t have the money for. HBO should’ve ponied up the dough or the producers should’ve found a more believable workaround. But the color and aesthetic shifts are glaring. And Kaufman is not above hammering his point home about the the animal passion between Hemingway and Gellhorn, which is fine for the most part, except when its laughable, such as the steamy sex scene in a Spanish hotel as bombs rain down, and ashes flutter down on their naked bodies. Puh-leeze. If that isn’t enough, the old “Lethal Weapon” “what-are-those-scars?” sequence takes place immediately after. The entire scene feels like a first draft element that somehow made it to the final script.
However, the tonal oddities aside, as “Hemingway & Gellhorn” moves into the final half hour, the character arcs and story coalesce into something unexpectedly heartbreaking. Even if you know their ultimate fates, the film is no less affecting, and the writers and director know better than to attempt to make a statement about the combustible nature of ambition, selfishness and love and instead leave it to speak for itself. Anchored by Owen and Kidman, and delivered with a larger than expected scope by Kaufman, who also manages to never waver from torrid story at the core, “Hemingway & Gellhorn” may not be literary, but it’s a satisfying accomplishment. [B]
“Hemingway & Gellhorn” premieres on HBO on May 28th at 9 PM.