Ooooo! THE HUMAN STAIN offered the potential for so many Oscar nominations: Best Picture, Best Actor (Hopkins & Kidman), Best Supporting Actor (Miller, Harris, & Smith).
Hopkins is Coleman Silk, an aging and respected professor of literature at an idyllic New England liberal arts college, who, in the "now" of 1998, runs afoul of extremist political correctness. He's accused of racism after referring to two students, who've been absent from his class for the first 5 weeks of the term, as "spooks", i.e. ghosts. Silk has never met them under any circumstances, but, as bad luck would have it, they're both Black. Called onto the carpet by the Board, and receiving no support from those who should know better, Coleman angrily resigns. When Silk breaks the news to his wife, she suffers a fatal heart attack. As Coleman puts it, his persecutors killed the wrong person.
On the rebound, Silk meets Faunia Farely (Kidman), who holds down three blue collar jobs, is separated from her abusive husband, a psychotic Vietnam vet named Lester (Ed Harris), and who keeps the ashes of her two dead kids under the bed. Faunia describes her troubled situation as befitting "trailer trash", and carries more baggage than a loaded 747. But Silk is besotted, and embarks on a torrid love affair with the 30-year younger woman. As Silk declares to his writer friend Nathan (Gary Sinise):
"This is not my first love, it's not my great love, but it's my last love". It's love - and great sex - in the winter of Coleman's life. Even Viagra gets a verbal plug.
THE HUMAN STAIN is also a tale of "racial passing", i.e. the process of shifting one's racial identity. You see, Coleman has a secret that he's kept buried for decades. (No, it's not that he's Welsh like Hopkins, but something else.) The film jumps back and forth between 1998 and the late 1940s, when a young Silk (Wentworth Miller) chooses to make the transition and abandon his natural family forever. It's only now, in a last orgasm of sharing with Faunia, that Coleman can unburden himself.
The plot sounds like grist for a maudlin TV soap, but is raised to heights of excellence by extraordinary performances, especially Hopkins and Kidman. Hopkins wore green contact lenses to match Miller's eye color, and the two men synchronized speech and body movement characteristics to make the age transition as seamless as possible. Nicole spent time in shelters for abused women to acclimatize herself to aspects of the role. And a scene where she longs to touch the back of Coleman's neck is Oscar material by itself.
Perhaps the most poignant sequence involves the young Coleman and his mother (Anna Deavere Smith), when the latter suggests what her birthday present might be five years hence. It brings tears to her son's eyes, and perhaps some of those in the audience. Smith's role is not extensive, but certainly memorable.
"Human stain" refers to the indelible mark, however miniscule in the universal scheme of things, that each of us makes on the world and which can't be undone. This film is about Coleman's stain and his coming to terms with it.
At one point, Coleman asks Faunia, battered by life and circumstances, what she wants from their relationship. She responds: "kindness". This is, for each of us perhaps, the greatest truth of all.