Nicole Kidman delivers a line as an elderly Martha Gellhorn, “I don’t want to be a footnote in someone else’s life.” Staring through the screen at the audience, with understated but exemplary make-up to look 30 years older, there’s a potency of a life lived. Gellhorn reported the very worst inhumanity of the twentieth century; and Kidman is perfect as in this moment fuelled by the mountainous rags of a personal history in tabloids that for her entire early career placed her in the shadow of another star. Unfortunately, this great insight, and multilayered performance is so fleeting in director Phillip Kaufman and writers Jerry Stahl and Barbara Turner’s look at literary history’s power couple.
The HBO docudrama focuses on the romance between Ernest Hemingway (Clive Owen) and war correspondent Martha Gellhorn (Kidman) that blossoms during their coverage of the Spanish Civil War.
The production design and recreations are highlights. As you’d expect, HBO are willing to invest in ensuring that the environment and time period is spared no expense. Kaufman unfortunately, most probably influenced by Robert Zemeckis’ Forrest Gump, uses CGI to insert his leading couple into stock footage of all the periods that their real life counterparts traversed. As there’s a passage of time or an impending significant moment – there’s Nicole of Clive pasted into the scene; and unfortunately it seems as if the money they spent on the physical production space SEVERELY ate into the CGI budget. The insertions are abrasive and happen ad nauseum.
Stahl and Turner’s writing shines most in the scenes between Kidman and Owen. They’re allowed to run wild, absorbed by their characters and they genuinely emote. However,the story is bloated and strolls along leaving this reviewer to constantly ponder the final destination of the journey.
Owen chews scenery; spitting, drinking and screaming in the most over the top manner possible. Kidman on the other hand is very strong. When there’s not a distracting piece of establishing CGI that she’s floundering through, she brings a humanity and personal authenticity to Gellhorn.
Hemingway and Gellhorn suffers because the story of a woman not wanting to be the footnote in her partner’s career, whose message inadvertently becomes the footnote in a meandering mess of a biopic.
Blake Howard - follow Blake on Twitter here: @blakeisbatman and listen to the audio review on That Movie Show 2UE here or on top-rating film podcast Pod Save Our Screen, available now on iTunes.
Hemingway and Gellhorn is available now on DVD.