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John Doyle

HBO movie a lot of hooey about Hemingway Add to ...

“Let me tell you something else about writers. The best ones are all liars.”

That’s what Ernest Hemingway (Clive Owen) tells Martha Gellhorn (Nicole Kidman) in Hemingway & Gellhorn (HBO Canada, 9 p.m.). It is, of course, hooey of the highest sort. Utter silliness.

There is lot of silliness in this HBO movie. It was screened at Cannes last week and that in itself seems silly. The darn thing is on TV tonight. Presumably the Cannes premiere had more to with the star power of the cast than with the merits of what is a serious HBO misfire. Nicole Kidman and Clive Owen turned up at Cannes, had their picture taken and nobody mentioned that the movie is codswallop.

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A good deal of the problem lies with the Hemingway persona as it is presented here. This is not Ernest Hemingway the writer but Hemingway the huntin’-and-fishin’ hunk who occasionally stopped killing animals or gutting large fish to type up a livid account of war, women and huntin’ and fishin’. In the version of Hemingway we see here it is in fact difficult to credit that he was a writer of note at all. Instead of being responsible for terse, vigorous prose, he is more inclined to squint at Gellhorn and declare, with a straight face, “Get in the ring, Gellhorn, and start throwing some punches for what you believe in.” Seriously, he actually says that.

And speaking of faces, Nicole Kidman goes through her entire relationship with Hemingway with a face that would stop a clock. She appears most animated when walking away from the man. That’s when Hemingway gets to stare at her rear end and admire it.

Mostly, when she speaks, Kidman talks in an intense whisper. This becomes irritating, as the movie is mainly about the Gellhorn character and she narrates the entire on/off relationship with Hemingway, which is told in flashbacks. One’s heart sinks at the very start when Gellhorn describes her meeting with him in a Key West bar. She says she remembers thinking, “Who is that large, dirty man in those disgustingly soiled clothes.” Hemingway is showing off a marlin he caught and is, indeed, ostentatiously filthy-looking. Just so we know she remembers correctly.

Then, stuff happens. Like the civil war in Spain. They’re there, of course, to chronicle the anti-Fascist forces but, it seems the main impulse is to allow for Ernest Hemingway and Martha Gellhorn to finally indulge their lust for each other. When they do, bombs explode nearby, just in case you were left wondering how it all went.

Director Philip Kaufman ( The Unbearable Lightness of Being, The Right Stuff) shot the movie in San Francisco, which is used as a stand-in for Florida, Spain, China, Cuba, Finland, New York, London and Germany. As HBO describes it, Kaufman also used the latest technology “to ‘nest’ characters into actual archival, historical footage using recently developed enhanced digital effects, for a natural cinematic feel.” That’s all dandy, but it sometimes looks ridiculous and awkward.

In supporting roles you’ll find Molly Parker, Parker Posey, Tony Shalhoub, Peter Coyote and Joan Chen. Not one of them truly registers and Molly Parker seems particularly ill at ease as Pauline Hemingway, presented as the uptight, religious and indignant wife of Hemingway at the time he met Gellhorn.

Kaufman has toiled before on attempts to dramatize the lives of writers. He tackled Henry Miller in Henry & June and the Marquis de Sade in Quills. The thing is, writers rarely make interesting movie subjects. The internal life of the mind and putting pen to paper, or hammering away at a typewriter, don’t make for scintillating action.

In Hemingway’s case, his outsize life and adventures would seem to promise better material. Here, however, the Hemingway myth – all adventure, drinking and womanizing – dominates and is presented with a kind of comic-book glamour. Clive Owen is full of zest as the man, but all that zest amounts to nothing when he’s obliged to deliver such lines as “Gellhorn, you inspire the hell out of me!” What hooey.

ALSO AIRING TONIGHT

Addicted in Afghanistan (CBC Documentary Channel, 9 p.m.) is a fine, searing doc about a portion of life in Afghanistan we rarely hear about. Most people are aware that much of the heroin sold in Europe comes from Afghanistan, but here we learn about those in the country itself who are addicted to the easily available drug. The focus is on Jabar and Zahir, two 15-year-old friends, whose sisters, mothers and fathers are addicted to heroin and opium. It’s not about the war, the Taliban or NATO. It’s about life in utter desperation.

All times ET. Check local listings.

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