Hemingway telemovie flirts with farce

Hemingway & Gellhorn

What's it all about

This HBO telemovie tells the story of author Ernest Hemingway's marriage to war correspondent Martha Gellhorn. The title characters are played by Clive Owen and Nicole Kidman with the Spanish Civil War and other global conflicts providing the backdrop.

Our view

For a movie about war correspondents, set during some of the worst conflicts of the 20th century, it's surprisingly light in tone.

The opening scenes have Gellhorn happening upon Hemingway in a pub in Key West; he has just caught himself a mighty fish and is high on victory and alcohol. She saunters around the tables to meet him at the bar and they engage in witty banter. It's hugely enjoyable, not least because you could easily imagine this scene with Lauren Bacall and Humphrey Bogart. It also helps that Kidman looks fantastic.

Soon the two are off to Spain under the guise of helping a filmmaker complete his documentary on the conflict. Kidman makes a jaunty entrance in a tank and Owen holds court at the bar (drinking and smoking take up a lot of screen time).

The film is so much fun – dare I say a "romp" – that it is a surprise when the seriousness of war takes over, and herein lies much of the problem with Hemingway & Gellhorn.

It isn't a period love story, it isn't a documentary and it isn't a comedy, but it dips in and out of all three genres. Lines of comedy gold are swapped for images of the dead and wounded that are horrific enough to bring tears to your eyes. And just when it seems the title characters have been caught-out by the Spanish conflict, it segues to an explicit love scene. It makes for a jarring experience and the viewer doesn't know what to expect next.

Hemingway, or "Hem" as he is sometimes called, is portrayed in a way that will delight a mainstream audience but most likely alienate literature buffs. Owen plays the great man as simply that: great. Similar to Woody Allen's take on Hemingway in Midnight in Paris, he is a larger-than-life character who consumes life with passion. Whether it's drinking, smoking, writing, fishing or even seduction, it is all done with force.

This is a man who likes to pound away standing up, and I'm not just referring to his typewriting style. As fun as it is to watch, it also veers into caricature. He speaks mainly in epigrams — lines such as “death frees the beast”; “you never really know what you're fighting for 'til you lose” and “since you've left I've had hangovers you could name battleships over”. It's arresting and definitely amusing, but overall a tad too much.

To his credit, Owen makes it seem believable that Hemingway could be engaging in a dangerous game of Russian roulette one minute and laughing uproariously with his adversary the next. In fact, by the end of this film you could almost believe Hemingway capable of anything — well, except for marital bliss.

Kidman has said that she is more at home in dramas than lighter fare, which is apparent in this film. The more she is allowed to plunge Gellhorn's emotional depths, the more she shines, especially when her relationship with Hemingway hits the skids. Even the most strident anti-Kidman viewers would have to admit that she is at times exceptional as the go-getting, tough-as-nails reporter who can knock back a stiff drink with the best of them.

Kidman is disarming in her easy camaraderie with soldiers on the way into Spain, charming when high on the good life in Cuba and alarming as the narrator speaking of the horrors witnessed.

For me, she most excels when portraying Gellhorn aged about 70. By this time, the character is well and truly battle-scarred; her joy of life replaced with a formidable determination.

The makeup that ages Kidman is certainly remarkable but it is her eyes that sell the transformation — her steely gaze seems to cut through the television screen and bore into you. Close your own eyes and you wouldn't believe the deep voice belongs to our Nicole. It is reminiscent of her Oscar-winning turn as Virginia Woolf in The Hours, and you can see why Kidman has been nominated for an Emmy for her role in this movie. My only complaint is that her wide-eyed look of surprise is overused and wouldn't be out of place in a Coen Brothers film (which this movie, at times, feels like).

Kudos also goes to Kidman for taking on a character who is meant to be 28 years old – and they say there are no roles in Hollywood for women over 40!

In a sentence

It's too light for the history buffs and too heavy for the comedy fans, so despite excellent performances, Hemingway & Gellhorn won't hit the mark for many viewers.

Best bit

There is some serious talent in this movie, and it's worth watching for the performances from the famous supporting cast alone. Joan Chen as Madame Chiang and David Strathairn as John Dos Passos are standouts. Metallica's Lars Ulrich makes an appearance as the enthusiastic documentary-maker.

Worst bit

It's hard to narrow this down to one, but Owen rubbing plaster from the falling walls into Kidman's skin during their unlikely love-making session is a bit hard to take. This is one of the times where the show ventures too far into farce. Their backstage clinch to ease his stage-fright was much more convincing.

Rating: C+ is for camp, which this movie, unfortunately, is too often. It also loses marks for length - 115 minutes. Even the most hardcore fans would struggle through to the end on this one.

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