WAR STO­RIES

First watch The re­la­tion­ship be­tween Ernest Hem­ing­way and his third wife, cel­e­brated war cor­re­spon­dent Martha Gellhorn, is brought vividly to life by vet­eran di­rec­tor Philip Kauf­man

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Television -

HIS nov­els may sell more than a mil­lion copies a year but Ernest Hem­ing­way — his work best known for its di­rect, min­i­mal­ist style and ac­ces­si­bil­ity to read­ers — is still ve­he­mently dis­liked in lit­er­ary cir­cles. It re­mains fash­ion­able to dis­dain him as the swag­ger­ing pa­tri­arch of machismo, the self­ap­pointed pos­tur­ing, wom­an­is­ing Papa, and to dis­par­age his once cel­e­brated syn­tax as the ma­jor style of a mi­nor nov­el­ist.

It was hap­pen­ing dur­ing his life­time too. D. H. Lawrence re­viewed Hem­ing­way’s In Our Time and spoke of a prose in which ‘‘ Noth­ing mat­ters. Ev­ery­thing hap­pens.’’

This might also be a nicely pun­gent re­view of Philip Kauf­man’s made-for-TV kalei­do­scopic bio-pic Hem­ing­way & Gellhorn, star­ring Clive Owen and Ni­cole Kid­man and pre­mier­ing on pay-TV’s Show­case. Though in the case of this movie, in fact, more hap­pens than some­times meets the eye, es­pe­cially in the way the ac­tors are clev­erly in­ter­posed into star­tling archival footage. This vis­ually ar­rest­ing 160-minute work rather sump­tu­ously ex­plores the re­la­tion­ship be­tween ‘‘ E’’, as she liked to call him, and his third wife, Martha Gellhorn.

She also just hap­pens to have been one of the great war correspondents of the last cen­tury, feisty and brave. Her pi­o­neer­ing jour­nal­is­tic ad­ven­tures an­tic­i­pated re­porters such as Chris­tiane Aman­pour, Lara Lo­gan and Marie Colvin, who died ear­lier this year in war­rav­aged Syria.

Watch­ing this movie, there’s lit­tle doubt that Kauf­man fell a bit in love with Gellhorn — and prob­a­bly with Ni­cole Kid­man too, whose por­trayal is con­vinc­ing and quite gor­geous — pos­si­bly for the same rea­sons that Hem­ing­way did.

Kauf­man is the di­rec­tor of clas­sic 1970s movies The Great North­field Min­nesota Raid, his re­vi­sion­ist take on the Jesse James-Cole Younger gang, and the re­make of In­va­sion of the Body Snatch­ers. But he re­ally made his rep­u­ta­tion with The Right Stuff, his 1983 film about the US space pro­gram, and 1988’s The Un­bear­able Light­ness of Be­ing, the sex­u­ally frank por­trait of a wom­an­is­ing doc­tor set against the po­lit­i­cally tu­mul­tuous back­drop of 1968 Cze­choslo­vakia.

His is a pro­found lik­ing for the deeply per­sonal set against the his­tor­i­cal sweep of events (he calls them ‘‘ in­ti­mate epics’’) but he also has a fond­ness for sto­ries about leg­endary writ­ers.

Other ear­lier films cen­tred on Henry Miller and Anais Nin ( Henry & June) and the Mar­quis de Sade ( Quills). ‘‘ I guess the say­ing is, I read there­fore I want to make movies about peo­ple who write,’’ Kauf­man told The New York Times when Hem­ing­way & Gellhorn — his first movie for eight years — went to air in the US early this year. He added, dryly, that writ­ers were ‘‘ un­sung as ac­tion fig­ures’’.

As he de­vel­oped the new project with screen­writ­ers Bar­bara Turner and Jerry Stahl, Kauf­man says he be­came a lit­tle cap­ti­vated by the lesser-known Gellhorn and hoped the film would rekin­dle mem­o­ries of her. ‘‘ This bears wit­ness to the fact that, as we say at the be­gin­ning of The Right Stuff, when the test pi­lots die, they came to the high desert and no­body knew their names,’’ he said. ‘‘ And that rings true for war correspondents, par­tic­u­larly women war correspondents.’’

I en­joyed it enor­mously, quickly be­ing won over by Kauf­man’s lush treat­ment of this great ro­man­tic lit­er­ary nar­ra­tive, the re­splen­dent set­tings, the his­tor­i­cal melo­drama, the ob­vi­ous erotic charge be­tween the cen­tral char­ac­ters, and the some­times quaintly charm­ing lit­er­ary ref­er­ences. And, with­out be­ing too crude, there’s also Kid­man’s bot­tom clad so se­duc­tively in her high-cut slacks, which fea­tures so promi­nently at the movie’s start.

From the mo­ment young writer Martha, 28, si­dles up to the cel­e­brated Ernest, a decade older and cov­ered in marlin blood, kiss­ing his fine catch hang­ing by his side in the smoky con­fines of Sloppy Joe’s Bar in Key West, we know we’re in for some sexy over-the-top sto­ry­telling. Yes, it some­times takes it­self too se­ri­ously as Im­por­tant Art but it does so with a know­ing af­fec­tion that cuts through the pre­ten­sion. And it’s fas­ci­nat­ing to watch the way Kauf­man and his long-time ed­i­tor Wal­ter Murch segue so wit­tily be­tween a big-screen­style main­stream spec­ta­cle and the more in­ferred aes­thet­ics of the art-house movie and HBO. (Think Board­walk Em­pire, The Wire, The So­pra­nos and Game of Thrones for starters.)

The movie ac­tu­ally be­gins with a won­der­ful close-up se­quence of Kid­man as Gellhorn in her 70s, ref­er­enc­ing those Hol­ly­wood 1930s biopics that like to take us back in time. She’s caught in voyeuris­tic close-up, lighting a cig­a­rette, nod­ding the smoke away from her beau­ti­ful face, the scene seem­ing to crackle. She looks up, as if to an off-screen in­ter­roga­tor. ‘‘ Love; must we?’’ she says, as if in ex­as­per­ated ac­knowl­edge­ment of a ques­tion.

Then she sets the scene for a movie that is less about the No­bel Prize-win­ning nov­el­ist than it is about this great war cor­re­spon­dent, largely rel­e­gated af­ter his death to be­ing ‘‘ the third Mrs Hem­ing­way’’. ‘‘ I was prob­a­bly the worst bed com­pan­ion in five con­ti­nents,’’ she says, her bril­liant blue eyes fiercely un­re­pen­tant. ‘‘ All my life, id­i­ot­i­cally, I thought that sex seemed to mat­ter so des­per­ately to the man who wanted it that to with­hold it was like with­hold­ing bread, an act of self­ish­ness.’’ She pauses slightly, lick­ing her bot­tom lip. ‘‘ And all that bread is not worth a hoot in hell.’’

This scene, like so much of the movie, is beau­ti­fully re­alised by Kid­man — the lines are taken from Gellhorn’s writ­ings — who po­larises crit­ics when it comes to act­ing as much as Hem­ing­way still does. She is so good here at the start that many US re­view­ers were cer­tain she looked too ‘‘ au­then­ti­cally old’’, as one said, to ac­tu­ally be Kid­man, be­liev­ing the

Ni­cole Kid­man and Clive Owen; in­set, Gellhorn and Hem­ing­way in the 1940s

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