Hemingway & Gellhorn

Photo Credit: JFK Presidential Library and Museum
Photo Credit: JFK Presidential Library and Museum

“I do not see myself as a footnote in someone else’s life.” – Martha Gellhorn

When I’m stuck for something to watch there are several resources I use and one of them is the list of HBO movies on Wikipedia. When I saw Hemingway & Gellhorn, starring Nicole Kidman and Clive Owen, was released last year I knew it would be one I’d want to see, given that one of my favourite writers is the subject.

The film is about the relationship between Ernest Hemingway and Martha Gellhorn, a journalist and war correspondent who was to be third of his four wives. Hemingway and Gellhorn met by accident in a bar in Key West in 1936 and were together until 1945. They followed each other to various war torn locations and also lived in Cuba where Hemingway wrote For Whom The Bell Tolls, which subsequently was nominated for the Pulitzer Prize.

Hemingway and Gellhorn were in the thick of it for much of their relationship and the film captures their witty barbed banter and need for constant excitement. Ultimately they were too alike for the marriage to have lasted. Hemingway needed a traditional wife; someone to bolster his ego, nurture his talent, and keep the world away. Someone who would be part wife, part mother and part muse. Martha was incapable of a passive role and could never be someone’s muse. Martha was a creator, an instigator, someone who wanted to be at the centre of things and make a difference. She was more equal to Hemingway than any of his wives, and her independence and Hemingway’s inability to tolerate it ended the marriage.

By far the stand out performance is that of Nicole Kidman, who plays Martha Gellhorn both as a younger and older woman. As a younger woman you can see how aware she is of her natural allure and how comfortable she is in her own skin. As an older woman it is easy to see how witnessing the horrors of war has turned her into an embittered person. Clive Owen plays Hemingway in a completely over the top fashion, almost like a caricature but then perhaps Hemingway is a bit like Hunter S. Thompson in that way; it’s hard for an actor not to play them as caricatures because that’s what they became in later life. Their public personas became more important and eventually detracted from their writing. (And prepare yourselves for an incongruous cameo from the most annoying man in rock, Lars Ulrich, whose acting is just as uninspired as his drumming.)

The film’s main flaw is its meandering plot line and a more stringent edit would certainly have helped. With a running time of two and a half hours, forty five minutes could easily have been shaved off. Additionally there is a tendancy to overplay certain scenes and as a result render them faintly ludicrous. The scene of Hemingway and Gellhorn sleeping together for the first time while Madrid is bombed is utterly over the top and the music in the last scene is so determined to wrench our heartstrings into submission it’s comical. However the cinematography is one of the film’s strengths, with certain scenes shot in sepia, looking like old newsreel footage, and then blooming into full colour.

Despite the fact that the film has many flaws, it’s worth a watch for any Hemingway enthusiast, not least for the recipe for the cocktails Ernest invented which I intend to serve at my next party. In the movie he calls them a Papa Doble – “Two and a half jiggers of Bacardi White Label rum, juice of two limes, half a grapefruit, plus 6 drops of maraschino. You whir the whole mess with shaved ice in an electric mixer and you’re ready to rhumba. I invented the damn drink and I hold the house record in drinking them: Seventeen.”

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