Three of Ernest Hemingway’s four wives were maternal or authority figures. There was Hadley, the starter wife, gentle but nearly eight years older than the young Hemingway. Then the boyish-figured Pauline came along, took charge and led him away -- willingly, but still. Wife number four, white-haired Mary, was the ultimate maternal caregiver for the older, lionized writer. But wife number three was a whole other story, as we see in Philip Kaufman’s sometimes dazzling, sometimes cliched HBO film Hemingway and Gellhorn. War correspondent and femme fatale, Martha Gellhorn was the only Hemingway wife who could match his daring and ambition, who could challenge his fame, who viewed him level-eyed as an equal. The relationship was destined to flame out as soon as her independence and growing reputation threatened his control.
Gellhorn is the film’s central, compelling character, partly because she is not, like Hemingway, a legendary figure and partly because Nicole Kidman is so magnificent in the role. Starting in believable old-age makeup as Gellhorn sits for an interview, she is stern and unsentimental as she says. “What’s always really absorbed me about life is what’s happening on the outside – action,” a revealing clue to the fraught, impossible relationship ahead.
Flashing back, she is vibrant, glamorous and strong-willed as a young journalist who sashays over to the already-famous Hemingway in a bar. Before long they are making love while covering the Spanish Civil War - because, after all, this is a Hemingway story, in which war and adventure are never wholly detached from sex and romance.
Kidman looks stunning in every scene, with a costume style and sexy-dame approach resembling Bacall’s in classics like To Have and Have Not. You can see why Hemingway falls so hard for her.
Poor Clive Owen has an impossible job, though, saddled with too many Hemingwayesque lines, as well as a moustache and glasses that sometimes look more Groucho Marx than Hemingway. Owen grows into the role in the film’s later stages, when the marriage begins to sour and the bullying Hemingway appears. But especially in the earlier scenes, the screenplay by Jerry Stahl and Barbara Turner is almost a roadmap for how not to make a biographical film. Does he really have to glower at her while when she is distraught and temporarily insecure in Spain, and quote himself: “There’s nothing to writing, Gellhorn. All you do is sit down at your typrewriter and bleed”? Or reel in a giant fish in Cuba while his lackeys yell “Papa, Papa!” Maybe true, but stale.
But there is also much wonderfully stylish and intelligent direction by Kaufman, especially in the war scenes. He recreates episodes from Joris Ivens’ documentary Spanish Earth, with narration written and spoken by Hemingway, and often weaves together desaturated new scenes with footage from the period. When the married Hemingway and Gellhorn go off to China and meet Chiang Kai-shek, the film becomes an exotic travel adventure, but we also see that Hemingway, tagging along so that Gellhorn can report for Collier’s magazine, will not play the supportive spouse for long.
WHen he later takes up with the compliant Mary (Parker Posey) while Gellhorn is off reporting from Finland, we finally get to see the conflict within Hemingway – passionately drawn to the tough and brilliant woman who will never be good wifey-material – as well as the hurt that makes Gellhorn’s statement about caring for outside action seem sad and defensive.
Yes, Hemingway and Gellhorn is flawed and, at two and half hours, overlong. But it is finallyfull of enough fascinating, provocative episodes to be worth it.
Take a look at the quite accurate trailer: