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
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