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TV Review: HBO’s Hemingway & Gellhorn Is Silly and Smart

Nicole Kidman and Clive Owen in Hemingway & Gellhorn. Photo: Karen Ballard/HBO

“There’s nothing to writing, Gellhorn,” Ernest Hemingway tells journalist Martha Gellhorn, his lover and muse, in HBO’s Hemingway &
Gellhorn. “All you’ve got to do is sit down at your typewriter and bleed.” The line would be easy to dismiss as Hollywood b.s. if it weren’t an actual Hemingway quote, rephrased slightly by screenwriters Jerry Stahl and Barbara Turner, and spat out like a plug of chewing tobacco by the film’s costar Clive Owen. Within minutes of Hemingway’s pronouncement, which is meant to push Gellhorn (Nicole Kidman) past a bout of writer’s block while she’s covering the Spanish Civil War for Collier’s Magazine, bombs fall on the city. Their hotel shudders under the impact. Hemingway gropes Gellhorn while shielding her body from shards of glass, and the two scribes end up naked on a bed, rutting hungrily while explosives flash in a window just beyond Gellhorn’s upraised heels.

Amazingly, Hemingway & Gellhorn doesn’t attain maximum ludicrousness in this sequence, which occurs about an hour into a 160-minute movie;
it’s just getting warmed up.  And yet, just as amazingly, the film is as smart and sexy as it is extravagantly silly; its silliness is knowing and affectionate. Even when its characters are behaving less like cinematic avatars of real historical figures than hot-tempered Barbie and Ken dolls with genitals, the movie remains stubbornly connected to life, and the relationship between reality and fiction (Hollywood fiction specifically) is always on its mind. Director Philip Kaufman (The Right Stuff) and his editor and sound designer Walter Murch (Apocalypse Now) are masters at splitting the difference between two seemingly different modes, the glossy, easily digestible mainstream spectacle and the allusive, aesthetically innovative art-house movie. Their work here rivals their collaboration on 1988’s The Unbearable Lightness of Being, another sexy, soapy epic that wanted to be all things to all people and nearly succeeded.

To some degree all of Kaufman’s historical films feel at once classical and counterculture, mainstream and art-house: The Right Stuff, The Unbearable Lightness of Being, Henry and June, the forgotten but fascinating Quills. This is another entry in that vein. For all its frank sex and battlefield gore, Hemingway & Gellhorn often feels like the sort of biopic that might have been made about the two writers in the early ‘60s, not long after Papa put a shotgun in his mouth. The sets are always sumptuous, the costumes and production design spot-on, the actors’ hair and makeup always perfect (or perfectly messy), and yet the script and direction are never content to present any scene as eye candy and be done with it. There’s always something else humming under the surface: a questioning, even doubtful quality, one that succumbs to the seductiveness of this sort of movie even as it analyzes it. Just in case you doubt the film’s fundamental intelligence, a running gag in Hemingway & Gellhorn confirms it: Hemingway claims to have been disgusted by Hollywood’s treatment of his novel A Farewell to Arms, but displays the poster prominently in his home.

Remember the Soviet invasion sequence in Being, which seamlessly integrated the film’s actors into historical footage of tanks and soldiers invading Prague? Kaufman and Murch (maybe the most hands-on, creative editor in modern movies, which is why I keep listing him and Kaufman as a team) appear to have used that sequence as a template for all of Hemingway & Gellhorn. The movie transitions from lush color images of re-created moments to scratchy archival footage of actual historical events and back again, but so deliberately that it foregrounds the artifice instead of disguising it. In fact, the artifice is the point. The film is framed as an extended interview with Gellhorn circa 1991, with Kidman in old-age makeup speaking in a deep, scratchy, but still-cultured voice that makes her sound vaguely like Sigourney Weaver.  The interplay of color and black-and-white, of Hollywood gloss and documentary grit, becomes a visual metaphor for the difference between our own subjective memories of events and the events themselves, and for the human tendency to make ourselves into the leading men and ladies of epics that are mainly about us, with entire civilizations providing us with sets and extras.

Some of the composited shots are more convincing than others, and a few are a tad Forrest Gump-y, more amusing than impressive. But because they all have a tossed-off feeling, they play more like storytelling flourishes than attempts to convince you that Nicole Kidman and Clive Owen were actually in Franco’s Spain or in China on the cusp of Communist takeover. And they’re all part of the movie’s voluptuous yet controlled style. Gellhorn’s voice-over narration is just enough of a presence that the tale sometimes becomes a meditation on memory itself – a point made with film buff cleverness in the aftermath of Gellhorn and Hemingway’s first tryst, when they lie on a bed, their naked bodies caked with ash like the lovers in Hiroshima, Mon Amour.

Much of the film’s first half is set in Spain during the Civil War, with the then-inexperienced war reporter Gellhorn meeting the married Hemingway in a bar and becoming his pupil in writing, war coverage and life generally. He’s already got a wife (his second, played by Deadwood’s Molly Parker) but can’t escape the ruins of that marriage because she’s Catholic and won’t divorce him. As their romance unfolds over many long years, it becomes clear that Hemingway doesn’t observe social niceties of any kind. He tells people that one should do sober what one would normally only do when drunk, but because he’s soused most of the time, we never get to see him put his money where his mouth is. In the film’s early scenes, Kidman’s Gellhorn comes on like a sexy blank and Owen’s Hemingway as a fully formed intellectual blowhard hunk. The filmmakers spotlight Kidman’s slacks-wrapped posterior and Owen’s kudzu chest hair as if they were the movie’s most magnificent special effects, which in a sense they are.  The stars’ yummy magnetism is front-and-center, eclipsing the movie’s wildly overqualified roster of supporting players: David Strathairn as John Dos Passos; Peter Coyote as legendary editor Max Perkins; Joan Chen as Madame Chang Kai-Shek; Parker Posey as Hemingway’s last wife Mary Welsh.

It’s not all glamorous canoodling, though. Over time, Gellhorn becomes more accomplished, tough and poised, and thus more of a threat to
Hemingway’s overcompensating brand of machismo, and he reacts by becoming impossible to live with, replacing tutelage with bitter rants and even stealing her Colliers’ job out from under her. The thing that initially drew them to one another, a shared, heroic sense of life, becomes the only thing keeping them together; it’s ultimately not enough because Hemingway is a self-loathing monster who’s been playing a self-written role for so long that he’s vanished into it. Plus, he’s a terrible drunk, cruel and childish. The movie is as much about the pain of having an alcoholic bastard as a soul mate as it is about history, memory, sexual chemistry and self-expression.

Kidman’s work here is more than just a case of astute casting. This is her sharpest, most natural work in any major role, and she’s just right for the filmmakers’ approach. She’s playing a genuinely talented woman blessed with movie-star looks, but she never lets Gellhorn become an abstraction or case study. Although we can see Gellhorn working through complex, contradictory emotions in every scene – but particularly in scenes opposite Hemingway – Gellhorn herself never attains total self-knowledge until the very end of her life, the part represented by the 1991 sequences. Hemingway’s case is far more tragic, but Owen – who’s more often typecast as a recessive brooder – plays the writer with such cartoonish gusto that the film never becomes a doom-spiral downer. The filmmakers never lose sight of the fact that these were a couple of charismatic, gifted people who had amazing adventures together (and apart). Even when they were miserable, they weren’t bored, unless they were stuck at home together during peacetime.

Throughout, there’s a stealthy aspect, a sense that everyone involved is using the moldiest, silliest Hollywood biopic conventions (complete
with old-age-interview framing device, for God’s sake!) to say something serious about the interplay of art and life. Stirring images and imaginative transitions that would be the highlight of lesser films are scattered liberally throughout Hemingway & Gellhorn. A flashbulb pops over a freeze-frame image of Hemingway writing; then there’s another pop and freeze-frame, and another, and the pops on the soundtrack become the whack-whack of typewriter keys, taking us into the next scene.  Gellhorn looks in to the eye of a crow and sees her face composited onto its cornea – an image that rhymes with shots of documentary camera crews shooting images of wartime destruction and death, the camera’s lenses reflecting mayhem and piled-up corpses. In the sequence in which Martha covers the liberation of Dachau, the film dissolves from old Martha to young Martha – both of them breaking the implied fourth wall addressing us directly – and then later to the charred skull of a camp victim, literalizing the idea that a well-told story can transport you into another time and place and compel identification.  I can’t think of the last American movie I saw that was simultaneously as stirring and ridiculous, clichéd and imaginative, dumb and smart as Hemingway & Gellhorn.  They don’t make them like this anymore. Never did, really.

HBO’s Hemingway & Gellhorn Is Silly and Smart