“Hemingway & Gellhorn” 9 p.m. Monday, HBO
Philip Kaufman’s film about Ernest Hemingway and journalist Martha Gellhorn is as gloriously messy as the couple’s swashbuckling relationship and marriage itself.
One of Kaufman’s most naked and overtly passionate films, “Hemingway & Gellhorn,” airing Monday on HBO, is over the top in places, grand, sexy and probably too long. In the end, we are left feeling that while we’d probably never want to live next door to this compellingly noisy pair, they’d make swell company for a rum-soaked night on the town.
Filmed entirely in the Bay Area, “Hemingway” focuses on a pivotal period in the author’s life. He’d already achieved acclaim for his novels “The Sun Also Rises” and “A Farewell to Arms,” but perhaps more to the point of Kaufman’s film, he had already crafted an outsized public persona for himself as the he-man of American letters.
Still ahead of him were the parable “The Old Man and the Sea,” the Nobel prize for literature in 1954 and the fatal shotgun blast in 1961 that, for a time, was said to have been an accident. The Hemingway image factory was still working, postmortem.
He met journalist Martha Gellhorn in Key West in 1936 when he was still married to his second wife, Pauline, a devout Catholic who foolishly hoped she could compete with Hemingway’s globe-trotting ambition. Eventually winning a divorce from Pauline, Hemingway married Gellhorn in 1940, the year he finished his masterpiece, “For Whom the Bell Tolls.” By the time they got married, Kaufman’s film tells us, their relationship was already beginning to lose steam, because Hemingway and Gellhorn only really thrived as a couple when they were covering the Spanish Civil War.
Working from a script by Barbara Turner and Jerry Stahl, Kaufman assembles a singular cast of big names to tell the story of the star-crossed lovers: David Strathairn is fellow writer John Dos Passos, Molly Parker plays Pauline, powerless to stop Hemingway from leaving her; Joan Chen plays Madame Chiang Kai Shek; Metallica drummer Lars Ulrich is Dutch filmmaker Joris Ivens; Tony Shalhoub is Soviet journalist Koltsov; Parker Posey is Mary Walsh Hemingway; Peter Coyote is Scribner’s editor Max Perkins; and Robert Duvall has an extended, uncredited cameo as a blustering Russian general.
All of them are great, but the focus and the story belong to Clive Owen’s Hemingway and Nicole Kidman’s Gellhorn.
Although Gellhorn’s character travels further during the course of the film than Hemingway’s, Owen has a big challenge in trying to humanize the author. Hemingway is portrayed as a swaggering, self-righteous, bullying loudmouth, with only occasional hints of whatever demons may have driven him internally. Owen makes the character interesting but never quite fills in the blanks.
You can’t take your eyes off Kidman, not because she’s beautiful but because her performance is so compellingly dominant.
The entire film is structured as one big flashback as Gellhorn is interviewed, late in life, by a David Frost-like character. At the start of the movie, the elderly Gellhorn says she never liked sex, but felt it was expected by the men she was with. It’s only at the end of the film, as she tells the interviewer she won’t allow herself to become a “footnote” in the life of a man who’d killed himself many years before, that we understand how much she’s adopted a tough, protective veneer much as Hemingway had done.
What the film doesn’t include is the fact that she, too, committed suicide, by overdosing on drugs when her life had been ravaged by illness and blindness at 89.
Kaufman’s film, despite some flaws, captures the intensity of their story and pulls us in with the irresistible force of a great, doomed love story.