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Hemingway & Gellhorn (Philip Kaufman, 2012)


A conventional biopic about an unconventional relationship, Philip Kaufman’s telefilm Hemingway & Gellhorn traces a tumultuous pair through both love and war. Covering about a decade, this expansive but intimate romance hopes to reveal unknown insights into the courtship and marriage of celebrated author Ernest Hemingway and Marsha Gellhorn, his third wife, who was herself a fearless war correspondent. Spanning the globe, the arc of this story often attains a spirit of adventure that amplifies the emotions in its central relationship. These brilliant people, obviously passionate in their own rights, are clearly giving something up by redirecting some of that passion toward one other. Seizing onto the resultant neuroses, Kaufman’s tone here is overheated and usually overwrought, but this melodramatic excess helps to convince us that this all too familiar story is worthy of our attention.


From scene to scene Hemingway & Gellhorn largely works. Flagrant moments of kitsch aside, it’s only when one begins to seek greater meaning in accumulation of events that things begin to feel somewhat flimsy. While the central conceit of their competitive, consuming ardor for one another could not be made clearer, the notion that their romance is dictated by the political events that surround them is only present at the most superficial level. One need only compare this series of adventures to Kaufman’s own The Unbearable Lightness of Being to gain the impression that Hemingway & Gellhorn feels as much a glossy travelogue as an examination of how world events impacted this couple. The suspicion that this movie is far too fashionable for its own good only grows due to Kaufman’s frequent invocations of stock footage and manipulations of his color palate. The tension between the film’s aim to give us an adult examination of a difficult marriage between two intelligent professionals and its desire to sweep us off our collective feet is never resolved.


Kidman is strong here as Martha Gellhorn, using her exceptional figure and old-fashioned movie star glamour to full effect. The actress’ steely exterior, which often results in accusations that she is cold on screen and off, becomes an integral element in her characterization. Watching her finally surrender herself to Hemingway is one of the film’s chief pleasures, and indeed in his more dashing moments Clive Owen’s Hemingway seems to be her equal. Sadly, his performance is inconsistent, goofy one moment and strongly seductive the next. Perhaps this is the actor’s attempt to encapsulate the moody multitudes of the author, but a complete portrait of the man never coheres. Ultimately, his self-caricaturing depiction of Papa Hemingway becomes emblematic of Hemingway & Gellhorn itself, entirely present on a surface level, but somewhat unconvincing underneath.



Jeremy Heilman