June 10, 2012

Movie Review: Hemingway & Gellhorn (2012)... A Moveable Flop

"I do not see myself as a footnote to someone else's life." —Nicole Kidman as Martha Gellhorn in the movie, Hemingway & Gellhorn (2012)
So I finally got around to watching the made-for-TV HBO movie, Hemingway & Gellhorn (2012), starring Nicole Kidman and Clive Owen, which tells the tale of the steamy exciting relationship between our hero Ernest Hemingway and his third (third time's a charm, right?) and arguably most interesting wife, Martha Gellhorn. Though in no way a Spanish movie, I thought I'd review it for you here given that it treats this blog's patron saint and his time in Spain during the Spanish Civil War, and because I've noticed a lot more Hemingway-search-related traffic on my site these past two weeks. (Why the sudden rising interest in EH?) Besides, you always have to ask, what motivates the making of a movie like this, what kinds of stereotypes images of the author or of Spain will it (re)produce, and perhaps most importantly, what kind of audience does it think it is reaching? As I sat down to watch the movie last week, these were the kinds of questions swirling through my mind.

The opening shock impact that I felt from the first scene with EH in many ways serves as a metaphor for the film's many challenges and shortcomings. Me and my wife's first impression of Clive Owen, with mustache catching a swordfish near Key West, was that he looked more like Groucho Marx than Hemingway. Which reminded me what is always the biggest problem biopics face when depicting iconic figures: the audience's expectations about the actual historical figure, a film's competition with the person's many other existing popular depictions, almost invariably leads to the audience's disappointment when the film does not live up to that long shadow cast in this case by America's most famous expat in Spain. (This doesn't always doom biopics. I like My Week With Marilyn (2011), and Monroe is surely an even more treacherous subject to tackle than EH. But everyone has to admit that the first thing you wonder upon seeing Michelle Williams is whether she's going to be able to pull off the Monroe look.) Putting first impressions aside, from that moment forward I was self-conscious that this would be a movie trying too hard to invoke (or escape) the legend of Hemingway, and it might stretch the limits of good storytelling or good cinema in its efforts to squeeze in those images of Don Ernesto that it thinks its audience wants or needs.

This image of the actual Hemingway and Gellhorn
nicely captures what must have been their
powerful, larger-than-life characters.
The acting was not bad. Kidman and Owen did a fair job playing their parts, and yet despite this somehow there was no real energy or chemistry between the two. In the scene where the two characters meet, snappy banter is meant to convince us there is chemistry, but it is oddly paced and the lines are not that snappy. For example, I introduce you to the world's wimpiest line: "Papa doesn't want you to go," says EH to MG in the middle of movie at a critical juncture in their relationship. It is pretty clear what Nicole Kidman's motives were for doing the movie. She got to play the part of a strong, adventurous and charismatic woman. If the movie succeeds at one thing, it is letting us know that one of Hemingway's wives was actually really quite an interesting person in her own right. Kidman's acting doesn't exactly detract from that, but I found myself wishing I could see Gellhorn play Gellhorn, and not some Hollywood superstar. We get to see old Gellhorn, and thus an old Kidman, which is always an interesting make-up accomplishment (how to reverse the reversal of botox); but Kidman's old-Gellhorn voice, low, monotonous and soft, which narrates the movie,  is noticeably affected and becomes kind of irritating.

The other problem was that we only really get to see Gellhorn in counterpoint to Hemingway. (Okay, so there was no false-advertising here.) And Clive Owen interprets Hemingway, at this point in his life already a celebrity, as bombastic, childish, and overly obsessed with his manhood. If they were a comic duo, Gellhorn would be the straight man to Hemingway's more dynamic, larger-than-life persona. But this is a love story... or wait, is it a biographical story? And who's the protagonist again? Throughout the movie you see the irresistible story of Hemingway interpolate itself into the scenes of what is framed and billed as a story about both of them... We see EH big sea fishing (Old Man and the Sea, anyone?), we see the Spanish Civil War years (more on this below), and they can't resist showing us EH's suicide (and foreshadowing the hell out of it throughout the film) even though he had long left Gellhorn by then. At some points it seems like Owen and the scriptwriters forget what the movie is about, and feel obliged to deliver us an argument specifically about Hemingway... but they never do. I was wondering if the movie would be a critique of Hemingway: he's not the great man, but really an arrogant, pompous chauvinist. But they never really go there either. Fans of Hemingway will be annoyed by how childish EH is here, while critics will be annoyed that the movie never dots the "i" in the feminist critique of him.

But let us not forget that this is a historical drama, and not just a love story. Certainly the director (Philip Kaufman) of the film wouldn't let us forget it. H&G is a movie where the grand events of history through which the characters pass are meant to move you. This endeavor also feels uneven at times and falls flat at others. The movie can't resist historical cameos (did he just say "Orson Welles"?), literally bomb-bastic war scenes, and the obligatory imagery of a Dachau holocaust camp at the end of WWII (which comes across as an out-of-kilter somber moment thrown in to oblige and to disturb). New film techniques are used to nest the film's stars in actual historical footage. Which frankly comes across a bit sappy. The cinematographer shifts between color (to indicate a lived present) and B&W or sepia tone filters to create a retro film affect. But the transitions are distracting and happen too frequently to be subtle, and there is something about seeing Nicole Kidman in sepia which just seems comical rather than historical.

Get what you pay for: Robert Duvall delivers one of the worst cameos ever,
as a Russian general which was a walking cliché. Though you can't blame him,
since apparently he did the part as a favor to the director.

Here you can see Nicole Kidman (in sepia) asking herself, "How did I end
up here on the Spanish front?" Good question, Nicole. Good question.

Scenes like this, that is county-side trench scenes,
always pepper the Spanish Civil War genre. Irresistible.
However, the application of this technique speaks to the irresistible iconography of  the Spanish Civil War, one of the most photo-documented wars of its time. So sure enough, we get a photographer in the plot to allow the director those irresistible photo homages to the iconic images of the Spanish front and heroic International Brigade fighters. Want "authentic" wartime music, too? Don't worry! We got that, too! But after this movie, if I don't listen to "Ay Carmela" ever again, I'll live a happy life... as if there weren't dozens of other classic Spanish Civil War songs to mix in. (Maybe they couldn't afford SGAE's rights-of-author charges for them. Or maybe its like all those summer beach clubbing hits here in Spain which guiris love because the title chorus is so easy to remember.) But despite all these filmic love affairs with the Spanish Civil War, and, yes, the hackneyed history theses one-liners (we get Kidman-as-Gellhorn calling it "a dress-rehearsal" for WWII), it is only just a backdrop, a stage for romancing between the two protagonists. In one widely commented upon scene, EH and MG manage to have sex in a hotel building even as it is being bombed apart and they are covered in the ruined dust. Who knew war was such a great aphrodisiac? (In one interview, Kidman tries to pitch this scene as capturing some useful insight into the two historical figures, that they were so intensely passionate that they were even capable of love-making when in mortal danger. Perhaps, but I couldn't help but think the scene makes light of what is the real backstory: Madrid is being bombed and civillians are now dying in their own homes.)

And much could be said about the signature HBO gratuitous sex scenes. And much of it is being said elsewhere. Let's see, what do I want to say? I certainly wouldn't complain about them. (There are three scenes in total.) Do they add much beyond giving us what we secretly want (to see Kidman naked)? Probably not. Unless they are meant to emphasize how kinky the two characters are, since the scene mentioned above and another sex-scene in the changing room of a Cuban cabaret club both have an oddly voyeuristic and kinky feel to them. The sex in these scenes doesn't exactly consumate a growing love between the two characters. (Maybe that is what the third sex scene accomplishes.) Again, I'm not complaining. But I won't pretend (as many others seem to be doing) that it adds much of anything to the story about Hemingway and Gellhorn. (And so much for showing this movie to the kids to encourage them to take an interest in American literature and world history... though perhaps Hemingway is not much of a PG figure anyway.)

Maybe the movie is worth watching just for this totally unnecessary sex scene,
in a Cuban cabaret changing room.

This would be the gratuitous sex scene where EH and MG are actually
consummating feelings of love and closeness to each other, rather than
merely demonstrating to audiences the passion of their personalities.

Whether to watch the movie or not, that's what a review really boils down to. And on this question I'm conflicted. It would be hard for me to recommend this movie on its filmic or entertainment merits alone. I think it was a bit boring, kind of a flop. Still, part of me wonders whether the movie has at least been useful for another injection of Hemingwaymania. While the world hardly needs more Hemingway fanatics, they do less harm than good. (As a Spanish Civil War movie, I'd say it's more farce than tour de force... I would redirect you to the hundreds of Spanish movies that cover that topic with much greater care and consideration. In this movie, the war boils down to the clichéd old-school American account, "You can't trust them Russians," which is a pretty impoverished understanding of all that went on in the war.)

Gellhorn must have been a kick-ass person, what with all
the wars she covered on the front-lines.
But I think the real irony of this movie is summed up by the epigraph I placed at the top of this post, easily the best and most memorable line of the movie. (Probably the line that convinced Kidman to take the part.) Gellhorn, in an interview at the end of her life, complains to the journalist asking her about Hemingway: "I do not see myself as a footnote to someone else's life." Something tells me that a lot of people in Hollywood liked this project because they thought they could breath new life into the conventional story of Don Ernesto by instead focusing on his just-as-fascinating third of four wives. At times it felt as though the movie was meant to be a celebration not of Hemingway _and_ Gellhorn, but really just of the impressiveness and greatness that was Gellhorn. But by the end of the movie, when Kidman-as-Gellhorn utters this line (in one of the few good scenes of the film... probably why this scene appears in every positive review of the movie), nobody is convinced. The line falls flat, because, irony of ironies, this is _not_ Gellhorn: The Movie. She has, in fact, managed to become a footnote, or at best the second-named titled character, to a featured event that is about Hemingway.

And this was the great failure of the movie, it couldn't get it's story straight, and just pick a genre. Was this a "behind every great man, there's a great woman" picture? (As one reviewer put it: "a lot of hooey about Hemingway".) Or was it actually a stealth biopic of Gellhorn, the trailblazing female professional war correspondent, who among her many amazing accomplishments was actually there at Normandy to cover the D-Day invasion? (Is this why the movie aired on Memorial Day?) Or was it a kind of Alexandre Dumas style historical fiction, where the characters' secret love lives crisscross the great moments of history? (We learn, for example, or that is the film implies that Hemingway's _real_ motive for going to cover the Spanish Civil War was _actually_ to pursue Gellhorn.)

In the end it was none, or it was all of them, but none done very coherently or convincingly. So maybe you should pass on this movie and wait for the remake, which I propose be titled: "Not Hemingway's Wife." Now that's a movie about Gellhorn that I'd like to watch.


Mr Grumpy said...

Is there a shortage of actors with an accent that corrsponds with the charcter that they are portraying at the moment ?

An Expat in Spain said...

Thank you Mr. Grumpy for raising another issue with the movie that I forgot to address in this review: the perennial problem in Hollywood films of giving Mexican actors speaking parts in movies about Spain. Sure enough, in the Civil War scenes in the movie, many of the bit characters (e.g. the hotel prostitutes) had a strikingly out-of-place Central American accent. For my wife, this is an incredibly incongruent casting choice.

At least Clive Owen had the decency to affect an American accent. (Besides, wasn't Hemingway _really_ British... love affair with bullfighting, summering in Spain, drinking heavily in the afternoon... sounds English to me.)

Mr Grumpy said...

How dare you.
I take grave exception to the Bullfighting bit.

Rob Innis said...

Never heard of this film before - but Clive Owen as Hem ??
Anyway I guess I should see it before saying more..

An Expat in Spain said...

Rob, I wouldn't say it's a must see, so I'd hate to have you feel obliged to see it just to make comments here.

So I'll instate a rule for all: Anyone can say whatever you like about the film whether or not you've seen it. No need to encourage people to see this film. Really. It was pretty bland. Better to see Michael Palin's Hemingway Adventure. Or if you're looking for trite stereotypes about Spain, a Woody Allen movie like Vicky Christina [insert Spanish tourist destination here], which at least has snappier dialogue.

Diane K said...

I have a newsflash for you. I saw the movie five times and will continue to view it often. I liked it - and wish KIdman and Owen had both won the Golden Globe and SAG awards. They really brought these two to life, in an interesting war backdrop that took you right into the screen with them. Ofcoarse, anything with Hemingway is intersting to me - what an awesome man!

An Expat in Spain said...

Diane K, how about we agree to disagree? As I said in this entry, I don't have any real problem with the acting, per se, but it is hard for me to imagine seeing this movie twice, much less five times.

Having seen it five times, was there anything you noticed in the fourth or fifth viewing, that you didn't catch the first or second time, that you would like to share with my other readers?

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