There were pretty lofty expectations going into HBO's prestige piece "Hemingway & Gellhorn." With the tempestuous relationship between the writers and the scope of history that they survived, this seemed like a can't miss proposition. Oscar nominated director Philip Kaufman assembled a top tier cast including Nicole Kidman and Clive Owen and set his film on an immense international canvas. And yet, rarely has a production so divided mainstream critics as well as viewers. If you look at the critical consensus, the ratings start at absolute raves (Entertainment Weekly) to excoriating pans (New York Times) and everywhere in between. While HBO films is used to being a leader in TV films, this is indeed a project that has divided its audience with both fervent supporters and equally vocal opponents. Truthfully, I can understand both viewpoints. The film is overlong, comes to a strangely rushed ending, underutilizes a strong supporting cast, and is visually devised in an almost surreal sepia-toned Forrest Gump-like blend of actors into actual historical footage. It's big, bold, and messy in a very in-your-face way, just like the central pair. And I found it both strangely off-putting and strangely appealing!
Hemingway, of course, is always a larger-than-life figure. The film is told in a series of flashbacks as an elderly Gellhorn (Kidman) recounts her life with the great man. Their primary story begins in Key West in 1936 and wraps up with Hemingway's suicide in 1961. In between, though, is the meat of the relationship as the couple fall in love in war torn Spain, vacation in politically volatile China, separate for different assignments, and eventually attempt to cohabitate in domestic bliss. Gellhorn, a war correspondent (and inspiration for Hemingway's For Whom The Bell Tolls), ends up being the real centerpoint of the story. Whereas there have been many portraits of Hemingway, and this offered little in the way of new information, I did understand the influence and impact that Gellhorn had on the man. This was not a story that I was overly familiar with, so it certainly held my interest. Owen is suitably blustery, appealing but never going very deep. Kidman (while I know some found her miscast) actually does quite well in my estimation. The supporting cast includes Molly Parker, a wasted Robert Duvall, Tony Shalhoub, Parker Posey, David Strathairn (always relaible), Connie Nielson, Joan Chen, and a barely seen Peter Coyote among a plethora of familiar faces.
The story of Hemingway and Gellhorn is certainly a fascinating one. Where Kaufman's piece suffers is in an inconsistent tone. Playing at times as comedy, sometimes as romance, sometimes as domestic drama, sometimes as adventure--I never knew exactly what I supposed to take seriously. Some of the shots that put our actors into real footage elicited actual giggles from me, and I'm sure that was not their intent. Some of the battle sequences were done for amusement, some for horror. It was weird in many ways, at least tonally and stylistically. But Kaufman never plays it safe, creating this bold and outlandish vision. In the end, it never really works--but it is always strangely fascinating. What the story misses most is its heart. When the couple have a moment or two to really connect believably, the film lights up briefly. So much time is spent in visual trickery, I couldn't help but yearn for more simplicity, more traditional storytelling. Yet, I never disliked "Hemingway & Gellhorn." It may not be fully successful, but it's strikingly different. About 3 1/2 stars. KGHarris, 6/12.