HBO continues its domination of original movies for cable with Hemingway & Gellhorn, an exploration of a time when the two world-class writers were married and produced their best works. Directed by veteran Phillip Kaufman and staring Clive Owen and Nicole Kidman, this historical, non-fiction film delves into the circles in which the eponymous characters socialized.
After briefly meeting in at a bar in Florida, Ernest Hemingway (Clive Owen) and Martha Gellhorn () stay at same hotel in Spain while acting as correspondents during the Spanish Civil War. Hemingway, with his experience from WWI, knows how to weave in and out of the battles to relay what he sees to wire. However, Gellhorn is speechless and has writer’s block, despite seeing life-changing events and witnessing the fiery passion of Hemingway. The two spark an affair that lasts throughout most of the events of WWII, giving Gellhorn the passion to become a world-class correspondent, while Hemingway seems to only find his muse when Gellhorn is unable to write.
Hemingway as her muse, Gellhorn will soon become Collier magazine’s go-to correspondent for many world events. Hemingway and Gellhorn are unable to both write at the same time. She is shocked by the events in Spain and unable to write. She has had her share of human interest stories, but she has never seem the darker side of humanity that Hemingway experienced nearly two decades earlier. He pushes her with his romantic interest and with his violence. Her passion is finally ignited after Hemingway coerces her to bed while their hotel is being bombed. He made her become the passionate person that would give her the gravitas to become the world-class correspondent that would invite jealousy in Hemmingway.
Gellhorn’s writer’s block in Spain is brief; she is a correspondent in transition. While Gellhorn is shocked by the violence around her in Spain, she sees the passion Hemingway has as he types standing up at his hotel room dresser. After purchasing their home in Key West, Florida, Hemingway is able to write all morning with no signs of slowing down, even after a long night of drinking that has given Gellhorn a hangover. When Gellhorn visits Finland, Hemingway stays in Florida and befriends a rowdy group that drinks and fights all day, and never writes a word.
Hemingway & Gellhorn has a striking picture, and in certain situations, will transition from glorious digital photography, to a kodachromesque saturated picture, and finally to grainy black and white, and then all the back again. The film’s chameleon-like color transitions matches the transitions that Hemingway and Gellhorn make. Hemingway is not just a novelist or a war correspondent, he assists in the direction of a documentary, and he even talks fatally shot soldiers through their inevitable death. Gellhorn’s roles are meek compared to Hemingway, but her own growth as a writer is greater. This quintessential way of exposing the audience to the time period by making the film look black and white and grainy, but the real problem with its use in Hemingway & Gellhorn is that it is more distracting than useful.
The grainy film also represents the documentary filming crew that Hemingway assists around Spain, directed by Joris Ivens. The documentary is central point in the film’s first half. The film is meant to expose the world to the violence of the civil war, and with Hemingway assisting and sometimes directing Ivens, he is giving the documentary the Hemingway touch. Hemingway’s influence on the film continues even when the film enters post in America, Hemingway and Ivens throw Orson Welles off the film’s voice-over narration due to his overly theatrical style, a striking contrast to Hemingway’s concise and composed narrative style.
Clive Owen effectively captures the cajones that Hemingway has always portrayed in his demeanor and his diction. Only Gellhorn has been able to crack the concrete that surrounds Hemingway’s tough shell, but Nicole Kidman’s face is too plasticized to take seriously. In the first half of the film, Hemingway assists a Soviet documentary crew, directed by Joris Ivens played by the controversial Metallica drummer Lars Ulrich. Ulrich’s Danish heritage is perfect to portray the Danish Ivens, but his dialogue is flat, and his presence is distracting. Like Ulrich, Hemingway & Gellhornis filled with high profile cameos from Parker Posey, Peter Coyote, Robert Duvall, and Tony Shalhoub, all who fill the screen as their respected characters, and do so joyfully.
Even at nearly two and a half hours, the film is expertly edited by Walter Murch, and keeps a pace that is both informative and relative. Hemingway & Gellhorn is another well produced HBO original that is able to keep up with the theatrical big boys, although it seems to lack the punch that makes it truly noteworthy. The war correspondence that the two represent in the film, and for that time, parallels in the embedded journalism that took over the Iraq war when it began in 2003. Journalists and crews were providing media faster than ever before, but what Hemingway & Gellhorn is expressing is that our media has lost the edge to report, and has instead chosen entertain.