The opening shot focuses on an old woman’s strong, lined face. It is the unadorned visage of Martha Gellhorn, a trailblazing correspondent who covered the front lines when women didn’t. Nicole Kidman portrays her, and Clive Owen is Ernest Hemingway in HBO’s “Hemingway & Gellhorn,” airing Monday, May 28.
With the sun pouring through the windows behind her, only Kidman’s bright blue eyes bear any resemblance to that old woman. Kidman kicks off her Jimmy Choos as she sips cocoa, describing Gellhorn as “this brave, intrepid, passionate woman.”
The movie took executive producer James Gandolfini six years to bring to the screen, and director Philip Kaufman, in his first movie for television, explores how the writers met, fell in love, covered the world’s main events and fought until they had to split.
Robert Duvall shows up briefly as a fascist flunky who comes within seconds of a deadly duel with Hemingway. Tony Shalhoub and David Strathairn, as writers Mikhail Kolstov and John Dos Passos, turn in excellent performances.
The movie does a terrific job of illustrating history — to which Hemingway and Gellhorn had a front seat — against their incendiary relationship.
Like most people, Kidman says, “I had heard of Hemingway. Of course I read ‘For Whom the Bell Tolls.’ I had no idea who she was. I so wanted to do her justice.”
As Kidman learned about Gellhorn, she tells Zap2it, “I was blown away. I just thought she was remarkable.”
Gellhorn was. Despite being a magnificent war correspondent into her 80s, she is remembered mostly as Hemingway’s third wife. She was a reluctant wife.
When Hemingway and his second wife divorced so he and Gellhorn could marry, Gellhorn says, “I have a horror of a marriage. I would rather sin respectably.”
Hemingway responds, “I would rather make an honest woman of you.”
Though the film begins with Gellhorn in her elder years — for which Kidman spent four hours in makeup — it mostly features her as young, sexy and incredibly vibrant. That’s how she sashayed across Sloppy Joe’s, a Key West bar, in 1936, aware that every man there, including Hemingway, was watching her, desiring her.
Wearing a black suit and white shirt and looking dapper, Owen has since shed the weight he gained to play Hemingway. “It was quite nice eating and drinking whatever you want,” he says. “I can have some big nights out on the drink, and this is for work!”
When Kaufman sent him the script, Owen cleared his schedule of everything else.
“I traveled to Havana. When he died, his wife donated the house to the Cuban government,” Owen says.
He saw Hemingway’s clothes, boots, books and jazz records. Owen spoke to people who knew about Hemingway and Gellhorn, he read his works, and he listened to an iPod loaded with every recording of Hemingway’s voice.
“I don’t think you can take on a project like this without immersion,” Owen says. “You are not inventing a character from scratch. It is one of the lovely things about being an actor. I drowned in everything Hemingway.”
As did Kidman about Gellhorn.
“It is fascinating that two really great writers were in this marriage, and out of this marriage came great writing,” Kidman says,
Hemingway wrote “For Whom the Bell Tolls” while they were together.
Watching writers is not, by definition, exciting. But these were no ordinary writers; they reported from the world’s hotspots. After Hemingway and Gellhorn met at that bar, they ran into each other covering the Spanish Civil War.
There, Gellhorn proves her resilience and humanity. As a woman is killed, Gellhorn runs from the relative safety of the hotel, through bullets, to scoop up the dead woman’s shocked son.
“She is the bravest woman I ever saw,” Hemingway says, watching her.
Hemingway goads Gellhorn into writing — asking if she is “a war correspondent or a war tourist.” When she indicates she’s not ready, Hemingway says, “All you do is sit down at your typewriter and bleed. Get in the ring, Gellhorn. Start throwing punches for what you believe in.”
Owen nails Hemingway’s style of speed-typing with two fingers. In a beautifully done scene, the two become lovers when the hotel where the correspondents are encamped is under attack.
“It was a fabulous love story,” Kidman says. “Their love was stronger than hate. Ultimately it had to build to that hate. She didn’t want to always be in his shadow. It was important for her to draw the line. And Martha’s whole life, her whole 89 years, gets stamped by those seven years.”
“Hemingway & Gellhorn” does a masterful job of placing them in history. In one scene where they are talking to the Roosevelts, it feels shockingly real, especially when FDR checks out Gellhorn.
Kaufman explains he used similar devices in other movies, including “The Right Stuff,” but technology has advanced so that nesting, or putting Kidman and Owen next to President and Mrs. Roosevelt, looks real.
“One of my favorite lines in the movie is, [Hemingway saying,] ‘I am writing a novel here. Isn’t that enough for you?’ And she laughs,” Kaufman says. “She was a better war correspondent. Isn’t it remarkable that the Hemingway code, the man code, was taken up by a woman?”