There’s something far more interesting to the pairing of Ernest Hemingway and Martha Gellhorn than the HBO production, “Hemingway & Gellhorn,” dares to express. A twosome drawn together by mutual interests in war and life experiences, the couple’s barbed interplay hints at a great emotional displeasure barely contained by raw physical attraction and gender power moves common to the WWII era. Overlong and undercooked, “Hemingway & Gellhorn” does feature two compelling performances from Nicole Kidman and Clive Owen, but a flavorful understanding of this relationship never emerges. Despite a globetrotting atmosphere of world history and lustful motivation, director Philip Kaufman falls short of a fulfilling screen investigation.
“Hemingway & Gellhorn” marks a return to the director’s chair for Kaufman, last seen guiding the dismal 2004 Ashley Judd thriller, “Twisted.” While this new production doesn’t offer a full sense of the filmmaker’s gifts, the movie at least gets Kaufman back onto stable creative ground, taking on an attractive story of a respected author and traveler falling in love with a braver, arguably more perceptive woman who comes to challenge his masculinity and soul, engaging in a tug of war relationship that encounters remarkable historical highs and emotional lows. The basic shape of the couple’s experiences remains in the script by Jerry Stahl and Barbara Turner, yet the execution is tangled, unsure what tone to take when dealing with hotheaded personalities and the changing political tides of Europe and China.
Much of the feature is wasted on soap opera antics, approaching the central relationship with a sense of the theatrical to emphasize the combustibility between the writers. One sex scene in particular highlights the hyperbole, observing Hemingway ravish Gellhorn during a bombing run in Spain, conquering his object of desire as plaster dust coats their bodies and world suffers outside of their hotel. There’s also a short amount of time spent with Pauline, who, upon realizing Hemingway is cheating on her, proceeds to trash their house, threatening to pierce his chest with antelope horns. There’s a volcanic quality to “Hemingway & Gellhorn” that’s mildly amusing to watch, yet the volatility belongs in a different film, at least one not layered with grim wartime experiences and excitable talk of politics. I enjoyed the force of spirit Kidman and Owen provide the picture (both are pleasingly cartoonish in their interpretations), but the spurts of feral behavior disrupt concentration on the finer points of unrest fermenting between the lovers.
The rest of “Hemingway & Gellhorn” is devoted to the duo’s life together as a married couple, finding the journalist growing irritated as she’s forced to endure the author’s jealousies throughout the years. Kaufman creates a specific visual look for this span of time that merges and replicates newsreel footage to help differentiate between fact and fiction, with low-fi but effective CGI employed to sell the illusion of world travel. The supporting cast is also lively (including Tony Shalhoub, Parker Posey, Joan Chen, David Strathairn, and Metallica drummer Lars Ulrich as filmmaker Joris Ivens -- yes, you read that correctly), introducing some outside influence to a personal story. What Kaufman doesn’t attain is a grasp of drama, generating a sense of discovery and violation that carries over the film’s 152-minute run time. In fact, Gellhorn’s story alone seems fit for its own cinematic exploration, distanced from the expected destructiveness of Hemingway’s personality, but her intriguing development as a powerhouse writer is the least of Kaufman’s concerns. It seems even in death, Ernest Hemingway is still overshadowing Martha Gellhorn.