One of HBO's memorable ads boasts that the network is not just TV, but a different breed of home viewing experience altogether. Their homegrown material is evidence for the claim — since the inception of the slogan, HBO has delivered television and made-for-TV movies of a different scale, from larger-than-life tales (Rome, Band of Brothers, Game of Thrones) to progressive, genre-bending stories (Tell Me You Love Me, Angels in America, Girls) to intimate dramas told with grand backdrops (Band of Brothers, Game Change, John Adams.) HBO isn't afraid to take chances, tell stories that otherwise may not find cinematic homes and execute them with the fearlessness required to do justice. HBO really isn't TV.
The latest, Hemingway & Gellhorn, has all the makings of one the network's uniquely epic movies: famous figureheads, big name stars (Nicole Kidman and Clive Owen) and a period landscape overflowing with stories. Producer James Gandolfini spent six years trying to get the film made, eventually settling on Oscar-nominated director Philip Kaufman (The Unbearable Lightness of Being) to bring it to life. The pieces are there, but Hemingway & Gellhorn is lifeless from beginning to end. It's a war movie, but the battles are fought between the lead duo and the production; the drab script serves Kidman and Owen little to work with, while hammy production values overshadow their lively presences. HBO's signature risktaking is nowhere to be seen in Hemingway & Gellhorn, more history lesson than historical drama.
We pick up with Ernest Hemingway (Owen) in the mid-'30s. He's renowned novelist, preparing to join a team of filmmakers to document the horrors of the Spanish conflict. Before heading to Europe, Hemingway crosses paths with Martha Gellhorn (Kidman), a budding writer looking to cover the war as a correspondent. Taking a like to her, Hemingway recruits Gellhorn for his efforts, and the duo head to Spain to immerse themselves in the combat. This doesn't suit Mrs. Hemingway (Molly Parker) one bit — but Hemingway, as we learn, plays by his own rules, Catholicism be damned.
Clocking in at two and a half hours, Hemingway & Gellhorn covers a lot of ground, plodding through the events of the Spanish Civil War, the emergence of Chinese communism and the beginning of World War II. But the movie never quite figures out what it should be; the first hour of the movie feels like a sweeping love story. The second, a portrait of two strong personalities battling their violent personas and inexplicable affection for one another. Slathered on thick is the historical element, a priority that drowns the character exploration. The script, by Jerry Stahl and Barbara Turner, attempts to draw Hemingway and Gellhorn's relationship beats in the middle of Spanish Nationalist/Republican skirmishes, but instead of recreating those events, Kaufman integrates shot footage of Kidman and Owen into real archive footage. The effect is sloppy, the film often transitioning from color to sepia or black and white without warning, just so a moment can match a cutaway of real life soliders marching, shooting or mulling about a town square. Forrest Gump handled these special effect shots with grace, but in Hemingway & Gellhorn, it feels like the money to stage war scenes was better spent elsewhere.
Hemingway & Gellhorn does little to pull back the curtain on preconceived notions of Hemingway or establish Gellhorn an unprecedented female war journalist whose career spanned most of the 20th century. Owen and Kidman light up the small screen with their portrayals of the two entangled writers, but there's little material that explains why two mismatched individuals would ever pair up. Instead, the movie opts for goofy bits of romance. In one moment, Hemingway and Gellhorn feverishly make love while their hotel is being bombed, bits of dust and shellac coating them as they lay cling to one another. Perhaps it's a true event, but in the melodrama of Hemingway & Gellhorn, it's another scene that rings false.
Kaufman surrounds his leads with a strong supporting cast, including Oscar-friendly thespians like Robert Duvall as a Russian general and David Strathairn as the documentarian. Rodrigo Santoro, Parker Posey, Tony Shaloub, Peter Coyote and Connie Nielsen are among the recognizable actors who pop up, albeit for roles that do little to spice up Hemingway & Gellhorn's humdrum narrative. Kidman even works as her own worst enemy, continually popping up as an elderly version of Gellhorn to narrate the action. The whole endeavor feels like a major missed opportunity; Owen and Kidman are so good, you wish a leaner, theater-appropriate version could have manifested in the film's six year journey to screen.
Late in the runtime, when the action starts straying from the war and focusing in on the strained relationship, Hemingway & Gellhorn sizzles with the potential. Hemingway insists the two marry, despite Gellhorn's resistance to convention she deems destructive. The argument is brushed past quickly — the next leg of the journey upon the couple before the quarrel can ever be dissected. Even at these hints of tension, any momentum or dramatic weight to the story is lost from the messy opening hour.
After the film's third or fourth scene of Ernest and Martha bickering in the midst of bomb shells and gunfire, my girlfriend diverted her attention from the film to the Wikipedia pages for the titular writers. "Wow, these two are actually interesting!" A telling moment — Hemingway & Gellhorn gets the history right, but it rarely unfolds the facts with a zest to match its characters.
Hemingway & Gellhorn airs tonight, May 28, at 9pm on HBO.