It may be premiering on HBO rather than in movie theaters, but Philip Kaufman’s Hemingway & Gellhorn is Oscar bait through and through. It features two glamorous stars (Clive Owen and Nicole Kidman) roughing themselves up (at least a bit) to play two major historical/literary figures (author Ernest Hemingway and journalist Martha Gellhorn). It runs an epic two and a half hours, spanning decades and incorporating several wars. It features passionate love scenes, intense images of violence and heart-wrenching emotional moments.
It’s also often painfully melodramatic and hopelessly predictable despite depicting a (mostly) true story. Hemingway meets Gellhorn while still married to his second wife, and the two share instant chemistry as they head off to Spain to write about and participate in the civil war. Their relationship progresses from affair to marriage to bitter resentment like clockwork, with a few steamy sex scenes along the way. Lots of familiar faces (including David Strathairn, Robert Duvall, Parker Posey, Tony Shalhoub and, um, Metallica drummer Lars Ulrich) show up in bit parts but are given little to do, and Owen and Kidman command attention even with their inconsistent accents.
Kaufman mixes in lots of archival footage, digitally inserting the actors into certain vintage scenes, which is more distraction than enhancement, especially with the constant need to switch from crisp color to grainy black and white in order to match the images. It’s meant to contribute to the overall feeling of importance and grandeur, but like a lot of awards-bait techniques, it mainly ends up dragging the story and characters down.