HBO has a pretty strong history of producing high-quality made-for-TV movies, so when you hear Clive Owen and Nicole Kidman are the leads in a film that's going to be directed by Philip Kaufman (who helmed 'The Right Stuff' and 'The Unbearable Lightness of Being,' among others), you can't help but set your expectations fairly high. Those expectations don't take very long to crash and burn once 'Hemingway & Gellhorn' gets underway. Detailing the story of Ernest Hemingway's third marriage to war correspondent Martha Gellhorn, the movie covers their affair during the events of the Spanish Civil War, their eventual relocation to Cuba and marriage, and finally the events that lead to their separation and divorce. Given the richness of Hemingway's (as well as Gellhorn's) life and the talent involved here, you'd think we'd get a much better movie than we do.
One of the biggest problems with 'Hemingway & Gellhorn' is the surprising lack of chemistry between the two leads. Which is not to say that the acting is bad. Clive Owen seems to be having a grand old time playing Hemingway, with his drunken binges, emotional outbursts, and lusting after Gellhorn. Meanwhile, Nicole Kidman gives her portrayal of Martha Gellhorn a strong independence and passion of her own. What the actors fail to convey, however, is why these two ever fell for each other in the first place. Additionally, the movie contains the kind of sex scenes that come to haunt actors when they attend lifetime achievement events later in their careers. The first coupling between Hemingway and Gellhorn is – I kid you not – in a hotel room while the building is being bombed outside. I'm not quite sure what director Kaufman hoped to achieve by having plaster and debris fall on top of his leads while their naked bodies are intertwined, but I'm sure laughter from the viewers was not what he was going for.
Another issue I had with the movie was simply a directorial choice. Kaufman has made the decision to use actual archival footage (mostly old war footage) in his movie, and in many cases uses green screen technology to insert his actors into said footage. This would have been fine if he had used it a few times or only during major transitional scenes in the film; however, he uses it almost every five minutes, and it quickly becomes distracting and, frankly, annoying. The effects aren't particularly well done, either, and don't look much better than what we saw in 'Forrest Gump', and that movie is almost 20 years old.
While Owen and Kidman get plenty of screen time, Kaufman wastes the talents of a significant number of great actors, whose characters come and go during the course of the film with little reason as to why their characters even exist. I have no idea why Robert Duvall agreed to play a Russian officer during the Spanish Civil War, but his character's only purpose seems to be to challenge Hemingway to a round of Russian Roulette, only to disappear, never to be seen again. Equally wasted, to one degree or another, are the acting skills of David Strathairn, Tony Shalhoub, Peter Coyote, Joan Chen, and Parker Posey. Molly Parker is excellent as Hemingway's second wife, Pauline…enough that I kind of wished this film had been about that relationship instead.
Despite my many issues with the movie, I will confess that I actually enjoyed the final half hour, which basically covers the divorce of Hemingway and Gellhorn and what happened to them after their separation. Owen in this portion of the movie does a very good job of showing the emotional and physical regression of Hemingway to the point where he eventually took his own life. While the movie's implication that it was his separation from Gellhorn that led to his demise is most likely an incorrect one (Hemingway was, in fact, just as noted and successful after his divorce from Gellhorn as he was before and during their marriage), Kaufman's movie at least shows some depth and direction here that is missing from its first two hours.
The Blu-Ray: Vital Disc Stats
'Hemingway & Gellhorn' arrives on home video in a Blu-ray/DVD combo pack, housed in a standard Blu-ray case, with hubs holding the two discs on either side of the inside case. Both the Blu-ray and DVD are front-loaded with an ad for HBO's movies and mini-series, containing highlights from some of their more popular titles. The menu for the Blu-ray is a moving graphic containing photographs and books related to Hemingway, with some of the photos showing video clips from the movie. Menu selections are on the left side of the screen.
By far the best part of this release is the quality of the picture. Throughout the film itself (as the movie changes time periods and locations), the overall color scheme changes – from a lack of bright colors during the Spanish Civil War scenes, to an overabundance of them once Hemingway and Gellhorn find themselves in Cuba. Throughout, the picture quality is near perfect, retaining sharpness and detail throughout and maintaining deep black levels and good contrast. Skin tones, while they change hues according to what part of the movie the actors are in, are always properly balanced with the color choice being made by the director of photography (Rogier Stoffers).
Like the video quality, the audio is equally strong, although I did have one significant complaint. As one would expect with a movie in which a large chunk takes place during wartime, the lossless English DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 track is quite active, giving viewers loud explosions, whizzing bullets, and a pretty well-written musical score from composer Javier Navarrete. The issue here is the problem that often plagues many movies of this sort, and that's that the sounds of all those battles (as well as some of the fisticuffs, large gatherings, and other events in the film) aren't properly balanced with the dialogue. Few things are more annoying that having an explosion loud enough to wake up the neighbors down the road combined with dialogue so low only your pet dog could pick up what was being said. Okay, it's not quite that bad, but you know you have trouble when you have to keep the remote in your hand through the run of the film and adjust the volume according to what's happening on screen. It's still a solid track and one that often impresses…but the balancing here leaves something to be desired.
Aside from the DTS-HD 5.1 track, viewers also have the option of listening to the movie with a French DTS 5.1 track, as well as a Spanish DTS 2.0 track. Subtitles consist of English DSH, French, and Spanish.
Despite the cast and the lavish look and production value of 'Hemingway & Gellhorn," I can't recommend it. The lack of chemistry between the leads and the overall lack of focus in the screenplay make for a movie that is pretty to look at, but hard to sit through. Should one make it to the end, the last half hour or so shows the kind of promise that probably drew these quality actors to the movie, but it's just not enough to save the film. Skip it.