Written by Jerry Stahl and Barbara Turner
Directed by Philip Kaufman
Starring Nicole Kidman, Clive Owen and David Straithairn
We first meet Ernest Hemingway and Martha Gellhorn in the HBO movie, HEMINGWAY & GELLHORN, when they first meet. It’s a bar, it’s the middle of the day, and Hemingway, as embodied by Clive Owen, is a bit drunk on both life and spirits, as he has just caught a giant marlin. Gellhorn, as personified by Nicole Kidman, struts up to him and captures his attention, as well as the attention of every other man in the room with her walk. Before too long, they are each singing a tune, a Spanish song that he knows all the words to. Much to his amazement, she too knows all the words. For a moment, it would appear that one of the greatest American authors of all time may have finally met his match, and for a moment, it would seem like we are about to embark on an incredible journey led by two powerhouse performances. As it turns out though, this moment was nothing more than a fleeting one.
The chemistry between Hemingway and Gellhorn, as well as Owen and Kidman, was instantaneous. Though he was married at the time, to his second wife, he and Gellhorn embarked on a passionate affair while they were each working on a documentary about the Spanish Civil War (THE SPANISH EARTH, directed by Joris Ivens). Gellhorn was a war correspondent for Collier’s magazine so her work often took her to remote war torn parts of the world. On occasion, he would follow and Hemingway, being the man’s man that he is, doesn’t like to follow anyone anywhere, let alone a woman, even one he’s in love with and that he eventually married. This is what screenwriters, Jerry Stahl and Barbara Turner, reduce their relationship to on screen. Basically, Hemingway cannot handle a woman who knows all the words to the same song he does. He finds her beauty, her brains and her bravery to be incredibly attractive but prefers his women docile and obedient. Each actor finds ways to flesh out these very real personalities past these simple constructs, but they are limited by the material and it can be quite frustrating to see them restrained.
As trite as the writing is, which is insult enough to a film about great writers, it is Philip Kaufman’s sometimes laughable direction of the film that ultimately undermines it. Owen, Kidman and the rest of the cast, that includes David Strathairn, Tony Shalhoub and Parker Posey, are often digitally inserted into stock footage from each of the war periods. The effects are glaringly bad at times and the actors often look so lost that it just comes off as hokey, when it was clearly meant to be somewhat innovative. The approach is nothing but a gimmick, and one that doesn’t work very well at that. When Owen and Kidman are finally given a moment to be alone and away from the war, we are privy to some intensely intimate exchanges between two great talents. These bursts of genuineness are too few though and at a two and a half hour runtime, they are not enough to make this worth sitting through.