In Divorce and War
The title is Hemingway & Gellhorn, but it might have been Hemingway vs. Gellhorn. Directed by Philip Kaufman (Quills), this ambitious and extravagant television film chronicles the turbulent decade-long romance between Ernest Hemingway (Clive Owen) and war correspondent Martha Gellhorn (Nicole Kidman), a period which spirited both lovers to numerous war-torn locales, including Madrid during the Spanish Civil War, and also saw the publication of perhaps his greatest novel, For Whom the Bell Tolls. It is love as a fierce competition. They feud as writers, as lovers, as daredevils, and one need not have read a single biographical text to know the union, however deep or intense, will not last. She says at one point she refuses to be a footnote to Hemingway, and the film tries to champion her cause, but it also cannot help but return to him throughout. Her high-profile biopic, alas, has a title where her name comes second.
This is a complicated film for which I have divided feelings. It is not hard to respect the production, from its committed A-list cast to its no-expense-spared scope, but it is also plagued by flaws. Most small, one or two larger.
Owen, one of the finest actors of this generation, delivers a convincing and engaging performance. It one of the film's most satisfying elements. Hemingway seems a hard part to play. He lives in our imagination more as a masculine myth than an actual flesh-and-blood man. Bringing this war-hardened, womanizing, big-game-hunting myth and his hungover tales of torment and honor to the screen proved to be one of the most rewarding comic ideas in last year's Midnight in Paris.
Owen's challenge then is to capture the animal magnetism and grit-infused charisma which created the legend, but also reveal a frail human side, to explore the angst and rage and bouts of impotence which tortured Ernest's soul until he ended his own life. He does so with flying colors. "Nothing to writing," he snarls with booze-drenched authority at one point. "Just sit at the typewriter and bleed!" Later he is standing against a closed door, pleading for his soon-to-be-ex-wife to let him in, then pounding his fists and weeping when she won't. Owen breathes life into both moments.
Despite a convincing prosthetic transformation, a framing device which finds a much older Martha reflecting on her career and life for a television interview feels superfluous. I am not sure why so many fact-derived films use this tactic. It tends to distance and flatten more than it reveals or electrifies.
Over two-and-a-half-hours long, the film's pacing is a problem, as is its relationship to its own content. An hour is devoted to the Spanish Civil War and various character and plot threads emerge, but most are ejected from the film once the action returns to America. The scenes in Madrid almost play as their own film. Later trips (to places such as China and Western Europe during WWII) feel thin by comparison, as if they were afterthoughts to the writers. Martha describes the abject revulsion and isolation she feels upon seeing a concentration camp and how she fled into a nearby forest and wept for hours. I wish we the audience could have lived inside this moment, but it's over in a flash, more a stylized gesture than a real scene. (Perhaps they should have cut one of around five hundred sex scenes and dug deeper into her coverage of the Nazi's camps. Of course, this is HBO.)
In a sense, this is indicative of the film's failings in general. The lead performances are thoughtful. Each period detail feels spot-on (though the frequent inclusion of a newsreel aesthetic, with scenes switching at random from a cinematic color palette to sepia or B&W with splices and scratches, is a distraction). The characters and time period result in a natural fascination. But where is the soul? This is an elegant film more concerned with pomp and sweep than intimate details. It is well worth experiencing, but also opaque at times and a tad frustrating.