HBO scored big earlier this year with its zeitgeist-seizing TV movie Game Change, which chronicled the tumultuous rise and fall of the 2008 John McCain-Sarah Palin ticket. The network's second original movie of the year depicts the ups and downs of another charged, larger-than-life pair: Ernest Hemingway and his fiery third wife Martha Gellhorn. Hemingway & Gellhorn, which premiered Monday night and airs repeatedly throughout the month, stars Clive Owen and Nicole Kidman as the star-crossed writers and lovers, following their pairing during the Spanish Civil War, the subsequent hot-and-cold romance, and the eventual break-up. Does the production live up to HBO's standards?
It's a complete misfire: Hemingway & Gelhorn is a "big, bland historical melodrama," says Mike Hale at The New York Times. Despite its two-and-a-half-hour length, the film does little more than recycle through the same situations — the couple's animalistic attraction, professional jealousy, spectacular bickering — against rotating backdrops, including the Spanish Civil War and D-Day. "The wars change, but the cliches stay the same." Add in two miscast megastars, and you have a film that fails in almost every way.
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The actors are great. The movie, not so much: Hemingway & Gellhorn "offers tantalizing glimpses of other movies it might have been," says Ellen Gray at Philadelphia's Daily News, making its mediocrity frustrating. Owen is initially magnetic as Hemingway, but the character is written to suck all the air out of the room, eventually to a point when "lack of oxygen may just have lulled viewers to sleep." Kidman makes the biggest impression portraying Gellhorn in her later years, but not enough time is spent on that period. The rest of the cast delivers valiant performances, but suffers from "a script that doesn't do those actors justice." The most maddening waste is Molly Parker as Hemingway's second wife, Pauline, who is "reduced to an angry cliche as the wronged wife."
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The movie is flawed, but it still works: The film is "over the top in places, grand, sexy, and probably too long," says David Wiegand at The San Francisco Chronicle. It's also quite fun. The depiction of the Spanish Civil War is exhilarating and authentic. Owen's Hemingway is fittingly boisterous and swaggering, although the actor never quite humanizes him. Kidman, on the other hand, is "luminous and masterful" portraying Gellhorn's transition from optimist to hardened cynic. The intensity of their chemistry ultimately pulls us in, despite the film's flaws.
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