Hemingway & Gellhorn debuts tonight on HBO at 9 p.m. Eastern
Some stories may be too irresistible to the artists who seize upon the idea of telling them. Any handful of the following elements could make a memorable movie: larger-than-life historical protagonists, forbidden love, a war-torn setting, copious alcohol, idealism, cynicism, courage, cowardice, loyalty, betrayal, creative genius, creative blockage, international intrigue, an endless parade of famous people.
But perhaps due to the creative team involved with Hemingway & Gellhorn, this HBO original production tries to include every single one of these morsels of prestige movie catnip. The writing team—Jerry Stahl (TV writer turned author of Permanent Midnight) and Barbara Turner (TV actress turned screenwriter of Pollock and The Company)—fail to resist the story’s elements of substance-fueled excess and artistic obsession, respectively. And the director—Philip Kaufman of The Right Stuff, The Unbearable Lightness Of Being, and Henry And June—can’t find a way to wrangle the star-stuffed cast into a narrative that infuses the story’s wildly bipolar themes with nuanced realism. So while he’s able to craft some arresting scenes and undercut some of the characters’ artistic bullshit, at other times he throws restraint to the winds and embraces the excess, a strategy that bursts the seams of the movie’s overall tone of reverent nostalgia, and lets quite a bit of the musty stuffing leak out.
Hemingway & Gellhorn does get better as it goes along and as Hemingway, in particular, shrivels inside his oversized legend down to the size of an ordinary, sometimes petty human being. Nicole Kidman (as Martha Gellhorn) appears periodically in unusually convincing old-age makeup to frame the story with a talking-head interview, from a position of feisty regret and fatalism. She tells the story of meeting Ernest Hemingway (played with great gusto by Clive Owen) in a Key West bar and earning his admiration for standing toe-to-toe with the boys, as well as for looking fetching in a pair of high-waisted camel-colored trousers. At that time Gellhorn was already an accomplished writer, garnering good reviews for a memoir about pacifism and a short-story collection about the Depression. As played by Kidman, she’s casting about for a grand cause that she can communicate to the world, and Hemingway and his entourage—Dutch filmmaker Joris Ivens, novelist John Dos Passos, bullfighter Sidney Franklin—had one on offer.
Their quest to tell the story of the heroic Republicans battling fascism in Spain plays out as simultaneously creative endeavor, political commitment, and self-conscious performance art. Ivens (played by Lars Ulrich) throws his camera on the back of a truck to film the Abraham Lincoln Brigade’s rapturous sendoff by the Spanish people, then races it to a rural front where handsome militia members are throwing themselves in harm’s way. Dos Passos (played with winning earnestness by David Strathairn) idealizes the hardworking Spanish peasants and prefers building irrigation systems to taking up arms. And Hemingway burns fiercely on the battlefield, but sometimes seems only to be in search of ever more outrageous adventures to add to his satchel of self-aggrandizing stories. He pursues Gellhorn relentlessly, but she doesn’t succumb until their Madrid hotel is bombed, in a scene that crosses into the fantastical with Hemingway caressing a naked Gellhorn covered in plaster dust with fires raging outside their window.
Back from the war, Gellhorn sees a vulnerable side to Hemingway when he exhibits stage fright at the premiere of Ivens’ film The Spanish Earth, and Hemingway for his part resents the accolades Gellhorn gets for her reporting in Collier’s Weekly. They share despair over Franco’s victory in Spain, and cohabitate in a Key West lovenest despite Pauline Hemingway, Ernest’s second wife, whose dialogue as played by Molly Parker consists mostly of the word “Catholic.” As World War II is breaking, they get married, traipse around Europe and China, but usually not together. After Gellhorn becomes one of the first journalists to see Dachau after its liberation. Hemingway’s antics pretending to keep the Nazis away from South Florida lose their appeal, and his dalliance with Mary Welsh (Parker Posey), later his last wife, don’t help matters either.
Gellhorn’s stormy relationship with Hemingway lasted only nine years from start to finish, but reportedly she battled for the rest of her life against being famous chiefly for her work as Papa’s third wife. As the title Hemingway & Gellhorn suggests, this movie fails to support her in that fight, despite allowing her to narrate the action, showing Hemingway’s sad dotage as a kind of comeuppance, and ending on a restlessly heroic note as she swings back into action as a war correspondent. The reason for its existence is Hemingway—hard-drinking, big-game hunting, womanizing, basking in the idolization of acolytes. Stahl and Turner get all starry-eyed around him for understandable reasons, given their own obsessions; he’s a dedicated artist, a relentless self-promoter, a thin-skinned bully, and a prodigious self-medicator. But Kidman’s Gellhorn far too often is given the job of staring at him with wonder or lust or adoration or petty foot-stamping frustration.
Director Kaufman crafts some impressive scenes, mostly in the quieter moments: Hemingway explaining to Gellhorn that a real writer never crumples pages before trashing them, the two of them cracking up over finding themselves in a cave in China. His riskier artistic moves don’t always pay off as well. A recurring motif that duplicates the look of historical footage in order to intercut it with (or worse, perform Zelig-style insertions of) Owen and Kidman teeters on the edge of good taste. And the script suffers from too many famous names, too many dramatic incidents, and too few scenes to get all of them in. If Hemingway fires Orson Welles as the narrator of The Spanish Earth, and if Dos Passos objects to one of his heroes being left on the cutting room floor at the urging of Tony Shaloub’s Russian liaison character, then the solution this script repeatedly concocts is to cram both those moments into one scene, throwing in Hemingway taking over behind the microphone and Gellhorn performing the foley effects for good measure. The complexities of multiple wars, relationships, patterns of inspiration, and artistic birthpangs are compressed and flattened into a parade of cameo appearances by Peter Coyote, Jeffrey Jones, Robert Duvall, Diane Baker, Remy Auberjonois, and Brooke Adams, among others, most of whom must awkwardly find ways to announce their famous or semi-famous historical identities in the course of their brief appearances.
It may be too much to ask for a TV movie based on historical personages with such tumultuous lives to show some restraint. Then again, “too much” isn’t a bad way to sum up the problems of Hemingway & Gellhorn.
Hemingway & Gellhorn debuts tonight on HBO at 9 p.m. Eastern