The caliber of talent in Hemingway & Gellhorn is more than you could hope for in most theatrical movies. Not only is it Nicole Kidman and Clive Owen, with a supporting cast including David Strathairn, Robert Duvall, Molly Parker and Parker Posey, but it’s directed by Philip "The Right Stuff " Kaufman. Yet even they cannot shake the feeling that this is a TV movie, rushed and basic, albeit elevated by their talent.
Martha Gellhorn (Kidman) was a war correspondent who crossed paths with Ernest Hemingway (Owen) during World War II. He was Ernest Hemingway, legendary volatile author extraordinaire. Even if you didn’t know the history you might imagine it was a tumultuous relationship.
The love story plays organically. We see them meet as feisty colleagues with a healthy banter. The passion that develops is natural. Their love scene is hot in that HBO kind of way. You see a lot of both Kidman and Owen, but it’s the flexibility, proximity and gentle determination that makes it provocative, forget about the explosions. Later a backstage romp feels a little rapey, but Gellhorn plays it to her advantage. The film makes a point of what attractive people they are, so we can gather that was real, not just because they’re being played by glamorous movie stars.
It also works as an All About Eve in the world of journalism. Gellhorn is green and learns a lot the hard way, through Hemingway’s school of hard knox. But not just Hemingway. He happens to be there to guide her, but there are things nobody can teach. Just being on a battlefield for the first time, in a war torn city, Gellhorn makes rookie mistakes but once she survives, she’s an expert. It still takes her most of the movie to develop a writing regimen as studious as Hemingway’s.
I can’t think of many movies that glorify writing, and among those few this would certainly be in the top three. The sight of Hemingway standing up with his typewriter on the dresser cranking out pages personally juices me up. I may try that with my laptop.
The lifestyle of wartime is interesting, though some of the best scenes feel like they’re plopped into the story inorganically. Gellhorn’s bargaining with a gypsy for pillaged clothes portrays the stark reality of wartime survival with snappy dialogue. That also makes it feel a tad too constructed by a screenwriter, like this encounter just happened to exist in perfect expository dialogue. But I can’t deny it’s a great scene.
Whenever politics comes up it feels pretty heavy handed. A macho standoff between Hemingway and a Russian general (Duvall) is a powerful illustration of his personality. Then Gellhorn chimes in about America’s role in the war. She’s right to chastise us for delaying involvement, but it seems like screenwriters Jerry Stahl and Barbara Turner stopping to jam the sentiment in there.
It’s a little convenient how everything is introduced. Gellhorn wanders into a screening room to see John Dos Passos (David Strathairn) showing Nazi propaganda and articulating the importance of documenting the fight against fascism. That gets the era and the politics out there, but it doesn’t seem natural.
Likewise, a scene where Hemingway fires Orson Welles (Malcolm Brownson) from narrating a war documentary is a fantastic scene, but in the narrative it seems like a stunt. Ha ha, that was Orson Welles, who’s normally famous himself but in Hemingway’s story he’s a cameo!
Every point in the timeline is conveyed dramatically, like a little more artfully than probably happened in real life. Yet it can’t shake the feeling that it’s just moving through the documented events. Pauline Hemingway (Parker)’s rage at finding out about Gellhorn is a powerful scene, but we haven’t seen her in an hour. It feels like the obligatory explanation for the other side of Hemingway’s life but it hasn’t been organically developed. Dewey Cox’s first wife in Walk Hard is more of a fully realized character.
Later in the war and film it gets even more abstract. Gellhorn’s impressions of Dachau are tasteful, but Hemingway’s automobile accident is implied in a way that just makes it look like they couldn’t afford a real car crash.
This is some of Kidman’s best work. Despite all her acclaim, I usually find it very difficult to forget I’m watching Nicole Kidman, even with a fake nose in The Hours. I see Gellhorn here, and it’s not just the American accent. It’s the way she carries herself, and the cadence of her speech.
Owen’s Hemingway sure makes me feel inadequate as a male. He beats a shark to death on the deck of a boat! He speaks in catch phrases but you kind of believe it. He gives some dimension to the bravado. At Hemingway’s worst, he seems pathetic, acting out rather than face his own insecurity.
Kaufman uses an effect where they treat some of the front line drama with a sepia tint and flickering image like a newsreel. It’s adds a cinematic quality to sections of the narrative, though the effect is gimmicky. More interesting is how the color fades back in and out around those scenes. You can never be quite sure when Kaufman is going to show you a full colored image or a retouched version, so that keeps the whole aesthetic volatile.
After all this, I don’t really feel like I know much more about Ernest Hemingway or Martha Gellhorn. More like I’ve just seen the Wikipedia page performed by Hollywood’s A-list. Still, that’s quite a show and I enjoyed the dramatic re-enactments of these bullet points. At two and a half hours it keeps a rather brisk pace so I never felt bored, or tempted by the distractions in my home.