The Human Stain concerns, among other things, the betrayal of family and self in the pursuit of freedom, the cost of radical reinvention and the dangerous liberation of last-chance love. That's a lot to put on a movie screen in two hours, but Benton and his coscreenwriter, Nicholas Meyer, nonetheless ably get inside the souls of Roth's guilt-ridden hero and the damaged woman (a smart, steamy Nicole Kidman) who offers him a last shot at redemption.
Hopkins' Coleman Silk is, on the surface, an exemplary American success. First a brilliant professor of classics, then the silvery dean of faculty, he elevates his small, New England college from mediocrity to excellence. He's admired by his students and respected by his peers, and his long marriage is happy. But when a tiny verbal misstep in the classroom ignites a political-correctness debate, Silk's equilibrium is upset. Before we know it, his wife has died, he's stormed away from his career, and the tragic secret of his past -- the classicist's own Achilles' heel -- begins once more to eat away at him.
Silk is Hopkins' richest character yet. But an even greater pleasure is Kidman's dark turn as Faunia Farley, the 34-year-old, working-class beauty Silk falls in love with. Direct, sullen and burning with raw sensuality, she's drawn to this older man because she has her own secret grief. "I don't do sympathy," she warns him. Despite the hazards, Silk plunges into one of the most complex and compelling love affairs in recent movie history.
Less successful is the presence of Roth's old writer friend Nathan Zuckerman (Gary Sinise) in the twin roles of confidant and Greek chorus. As devoted Roth readers know, Zuckerman is the goading alter-ego the author has included in half a dozen of his books since the 1970s. Sinise's Nathan, younger and more wide-eyed than we'd expect, seems more an accessory here than a vital character. On the other hand, Lester Farley (Ed Harris) is essential: Faunia's crazed ex-husband propels the tragedy and casts another, harsher light on the fluidity of identity.
For Benton, Stain must have presented huge obstacles. With wisdom and grace -- and a wonderful cast -- he's conquered them. The film's emotions are the equal of its ideas.