When iconic screenwriter/director Philip Kaufman set his sights on creating a film about the peerless war correspondent Martha Gellhorn and her tumultuous relationship with her second husband, writer Ernest Hemingway, he knew exactly who he wanted to embody his title characters. Problem was, his Gellhorn wasn’t available. Or so he was told.
Still reeling from the death of his beloved wife and screenwriting partner Rose, Kaufman ventured out to the January 2010 groundbreaking ceremony for the Family Violence Prevention Fund’s International Conference Center in San Francisco — and came face-to-face with United Nations Development Fund for Women goodwill ambassador Nicole Kidman.
His ideal Martha Gellhorn.
“I mentioned that I was in the process of developing Hemingway and Gellhorn and we looked closely at each other’” Kaufman recalls. “Two days later she called and said ‘I’ve read the script’ — nobody was supposed to have the script, but Nicole had her ways — and she said ‘I’m in, I want to do this, I will wait until you’re ready, but I want to do this role.’”
From the astonishing opening monologue of the film, which premieres May 28 on HBO, it’s clear how beautifully the partnership played out. And Kidman, kicking off her shoes in a Pasadena hotel suite after pitching the film with Kaufman and her costar Clive Owen to reporters at a recent press tour, is eager to discuss it with me in detail — despite nursing a cold acquired from her two youngest daughters, who wait for their mom in an adjacent room.
“Because Phil and I both love Martha, I wanted that fire to just bleed through — her desire to write the truth, her deep connection to human beings in distress,” says Kidman, whose passion for the project as a whole is so intense that she arranges for me to speak with Kaufman and Owen, too.
As the fearless humanitarian who struggles to find her voice on the printed page and the legendary novelist who propels her to greatness when they meet at the height of the Spanish Civil War, Kidman and Clive Owen (who spent a full six months immersing himself in all things Hemingway to play that role) display a chemistry that is visually and emotionally stunning, not just as sexual partners but as individuals uniquely able to appreciate the other. While both writers were obsessed with human freedom over fascism, both — at least for a time — were equally, fiercely possessive of their own freedom. To watch Kidman and Owen convey that struggle of self and other across a seven-year tableau that takes them through Spain, Hong Kong, Cuba and beyond is nothing short of exhilarating.
“The opportunity to do that with Nicole was fantastic,” Owen says. “Every day going to work, the scenes were fresh and vibrant and alive. We trusted each other and the rhythms that we developed together were very natural. We seemed to have the same idea of what we needed to get out of each scene and it was just joy.”
Indeed, the turning point in Hemingway & Gellhorn — and ultimately in the path their relationship would take — comes when Hemingway, working furiously on his typewriter in Spain as battle rages outside, accuses his new travel companion of being a war tourist and commands her to “get out there and throw some punches.” Gellhorn is stunned and the two fall into their first passionate embrace as their hotel is shelled and ash rains down on their bodies, in effect baptizing both into a union from which neither would fully recover.
“It’s a very important scene dramatically between the two of them,” Owen says. “They fell in love while they were both there during the Spanish Civil War and it was a really intense time. That was the backdrop of their coming together. And you know once they cross that line, they won’t be coming back.”
The film’s visual elements are complex, with situations and settings drifting seamlessly in and out of the sort of cinematography that best suits the moment at hand. Scenes depicting the pair at the height of their passion and power and living it up in a Cuban idyll are riotously colorful. Others feature authentically grainy wartime footage, and still others the sort of breathless black-and-white theatricality in which films from that era, including Hemingway’s own adaptations, were produced.
“We had some really young geniuses who helped figure out how to do all that,” Kaufman says. “Years ago, I did the Unbearable Lightness of Being, where we did the Russian invasion of Czechoslovakia — but for that even to match the footage with Daniel Day-Lewis and Juliette Binoche, we had to restage some of the scenes in Lyon, France, and then degrade the film and put it in faded colors and black-and-white. Now, with the modern CGI and green-screen techniques, we were able to bring that through the whole movie, which was great.”
“I loved the way Phil incorporated that footage and put us in it,” Kidman says, eyes sparkling. “You hear that and you go, ‘Oh. Okaaaay.’ But he really thought it out. We did this film on a budget and it was remarkable how he was able to shoot everything in San Francisco and still take us all over the world. Plus, I get to sit and talk to [Gellhorn’s friend and mentor] Eleanor Roosevelt! I was thrilled!”
To convey Gellhorn’s profound connection to even the smallest victims of war, Kaufman also placed Kidman into a scene based on the iconic 1937 “Bloody Saturday” image of a sobbing Chinese infant alone in the South Railway station during the Battle of Shanghai. To watch the actress — who is above all else a proud mother to her children with ex-husband Tom Cruise and her current spouse, country singer Keith Urban — embody a woman who admittedly had no capacity to raise offspring of her own even as she embraced the world’s imperiled children is among the film’s most compelling elements.
“That was something Phil had to work on with me,” a clearly emotional Kidman explains, “because so much of my thrust is being a mother — it’s run through me since I was very, very young — and the most devastating place you can exist as a mother is losing your child. Those things reverberate so powerfully in me and have such a hold over me, whereas Martha, that wasn’t the purpose in her life. But that’s the wonderful thing about being an actress is that I get to explore different psychologies and different facets of my own personality.”
As the film movingly (and sometimes harrowingly) conveys, by the time Hemingway left his second wife Pauline to marry Gellhorn, intent on settling down to a life of penning novels at their utopian Cuban estate, his new wife knew that she was indelibly nomadic. And that the strident Hemingway moral code, which she had lived up to as much as any man in her husband’s novels, would ultimately prove their undoing.
“They had enormous chemistry,” Kidman says. “But as she says, when they weren’t in a war, they created their own war. He fell in love with her as this fiery ‘Let’s go!’ woman. And when she wasn’t able to be happy in that environment and the domesticity was killing her, he didn’t understand. The thing that he ignited in her — to write, to tell the truth, to get out there and start throwing punches for what she believed in — suddenly he was saying, ‘No, no, no! Quell that now! Why can’t you just be happy here?!’ That’s complicated.”
“Nicole and I talked a lot about how Gellhorn was a strong woman who knew a lot of things and knew the rightness of things and that that kind of character, that kind of example for women and for men, is an example to understand and nurture and encourage,” says Kaufman. “What I love about being able to do this, and having Nicole do such an amazing job with it, is that hopefully Martha Gellhorn will be revived and people will understand that kind of fierce passion for what you believe in. Which is important for all time, I think, but particularly important to our time, right now.”
See the premiere of Hemingway & Gellhorn May 28 on HBO.
This month, the Cannes Film Festival will also present Hemingway and Gellhorn as an Official Selection in the Out of Competition category as part of a tribute to Philip Kaufman, who will also teach a Master Class.
Video and images: HBO