Hemingway and Gellhorn (2012) - Can't Stop the Movies
Can't Stop the Movies

Hemingway and Gellhorn (2012)

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Distance is good from a project like Hemingway & Gellhorn.  Usually I give myself about an hour to calm down from whatever high a movie has put me on and then write about it.  There are people who might say greater is better, but I like the immediacy of putting text to draft on a post-cinema high.  With a movie like this, the immediacy is all that matters, and there's little else which would make you stick around in the meantime.

Yeah, Hemingway & Gellhorn has two of my favorite artists and one who claws the edge at times.  But that doesn't change the story, which could be any number of hard-boiled fictions you've read or experience throughout your life.  Even if you don't know about the post-WWI noir and detective fiction the film is clearly quoting you'll have felt it at some point in your life.  Ernest Hemingway was too big a figure to not traffic in that kind of existential dread and Philip Kaufman just the kind of romantic to navigate the wake.

It all fails.  It fails in just the right way, leaving us with a sense of what could have been, but fails just the same.  If anything we can take comfort in the fact that Kaufman and company tried for the kind of oversized emotion that Hemingway's writings hinted at but did not directly acknowledge - the trembling male id inside everyone begging to be let out.

I know Hemingway's life seemed like an overblown ideal of masculenity at times, but seeing instead of reading about moments like this is a bit too much.

I know Hemingway's life seemed like an overblown ideal of masculinity at times, but seeing instead of reading about moments like this is a bit too much.

And that's the problem with Hemingway & Gellhorn.  We've been learning all about the manly drives and impulses pretty much since someone decided to record fiction in any matter.  Papyrus, stone, film, no matter the medium we've been learning this exact same story time again of  man who is willing to risk everything for the ideals of his sex.  Rarely are we treated to the same kind of nuanced, or even direct, perspective from the opposite side.

That doesn't happen here.  Hemingway (Clive Owen) is the star attraction and Martha Gellhorn (Nicole Kidman) the sidekick.  The film deals with their attraction and a somewhat misguided attempt at saying there is a passing of the torch.  She is the young upstart who is already aware of his legend and he the man who is still trying to prove that he has the same kind of testicular fortitude needed to navigate the post World War I landscape of despair.  They will fall in love amidst the rubble and emerge stronger writers each.

What I have difficulty believing about either of them, gruff and pronounced facile exteriors aside, is that they would talk and act like bumbling cliche's of the era.  Kidman fares worst because of the way Gellhorn is written and the way she chooses to portray her.  Gellhorn is constantly wide-eyed and shocked by the pre-World War II Spanish regimes she is sent to cover and report back on.  Kidman does what is now her standard confused bystander look and then pretends to write later.  If the film really is from her perspective, which events seem to indicate is the case, then she never thought herself close to the writing potential of Hemingway.

Why?  Based on the Hemingway that Owen gives us in the film he was nothing more than a drunk buffoon.  Granted, to get to this conclusion about either Gellhorn or Hemingway would require ignoring the very words they wrote, but this film barely incorporates them outside of the handy image of Hemingway standing and typing amidst the war.

It's great when the shadows start singing to each other, but I'll still take a Straithairn obsession over just about anything else.

It's great when the shadows start singing to each other, but I'll still take a surprise David Straithairn obsession over just about anything else.

I'm not going to sit here and pretend that I know the lexicographical extent of Gellhorn's literary prowess because I don't know it and I'll be damned if the film tries to how it.  What I will do is say that the preposterous idea that Hemingway thought in sub-'30s dime store detective thoughts is the path of imbeciles.  One point of the film is to say that we should be aware of one's success as much as the other's.  But when Owen is given endless lines about booze, broads, and bullets I can't help but feel a bit stupefied.  Are we supposed to think that both of these people are morons?

As a possible answer: Kaufman blurs the lines between the kind of overwrought biographical film and heavy-handed historical propaganda with an occasionally deft touch.  At first I enjoyed the interplay between the intense emotion of the melodramatic historical recreations seen through stock footage and the supposedly realistic film of the grounded war times.  Then more historical details were brought into play and I couldn't accept it much longer.  Kids fooling themselves into thinking they could become heroes of a revolution is one thing, but using the same dated stock technique to show the atrocities of the Nazi's is something else and the conceit escapes him.

For a film that uses Modernists as its starting point it never reaches a emotionally neutral ground that was necessary with one of this film's very subjects.  It can't ask us to feel a sort of humored historical obligation for these writers and leaders of the past then rub our noses in the horror of the Holocaust.  The shotgun that eventually entered Hemingway's mouth is as much evidence to this as anything else.  Emotional distance is possible only for so long then it will completely break down in the scrutinizing light of day.

Which brings me to the final failing of Kaufman's film.  He has always been successful when reproducing the unsafe ridiculous emotions of the source material.  When he tries to keep it at a distance it becomes a painful exercise in melodramatic excess.  Here he has too much access to Hemingway embodying both the properly tortured hero of war and the masculine ideal.  Maybe if he made an attempt to balance out the story with different facets of Gellhorn the film could have been different.  At the least, we wouldn't have had all that awful pancake makeup to deal with as they age.

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Hemingway and Gellhorn - TailHemingway and Gellhorn (2012)

Directed by Philip Kaufman.
Teleplay written by Jerry Stahl and Barbara Turner.
Starring Clive Owen and Nicole Kidman.

Posted by Andrew

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