Writing as War: ‘Hemingway & Gellhorn’

“Hemingway save me,

Hemingway save me,

Hemingway save me,

Hemingway get me really fucked up.”

— Cobalt, “Gin”

“There’s nothing to writing, Gellhorn,” Ernest Hemingway (Clive Owen) says to the newly minted war correspondent for Colliers magazine, Martha Gellhorn (Nicole Kidman), “All you do is sit at your typewriter and bleed.” Owen plays Hemingway as testosterone embodied; there are few lines of his that aren’t drenched with a domineering masculinity, and all his interactions come off as macho posturing. He comes up with wry, tough-guy lines nearly every second: “The best way you can find out if you trust somebody, is to trust them,” he tells Gellhorn, someone he sees as a rookie in the writing game. Right from the beginning, their love affair is inherently bound up with their writing; without it, it’s unlikely the two would have ever found an interest in each other.

Hemingway & Gellhorn, a TV film that feels more like a compressed miniseries, spans a great many wars. Director Philip Kaufman (of The Unbearable Lightness of Being fame) depicts their love as a historical saga: beginning with the Spanish Civil War, which both writers covered along with filmmaker Joris Ivens (Lars Ulrich, in a bit of interesting casting), the movie then spans Hemingway’s dissolution with his first wife, Pauline (Molly Parker), his and Gellhorn’s marriage, Gellhorn’s prolific rise in the writing world, their divorce, and Hemingway’s death. Though Hemingway and Gellhorn’s relationship lasted but nine years (1936-1945), this 154 minute picture makes it feel as if they were together for decades. Hemingway married a great many women in his life, but for Kaufman and screenwriters Jerry Stahl and Barbara Turner, she is the one woman who truly challenged him as a person. All other women in his life, namely Pauline and Mary Welsh (Parker Posey), are portrayed as deeply ineffectual in their love for him. Only Gellhorn—whose humanistic idealism is channeled wonderfully by Kidman—seems to get at something beneath his gruff, hairy exterior.

Their chemistry is evident from the moment they meet. After catching a huge marlin, Hemingway proudly displays it to the patrons of Sloppy Joe’s bar, a favorite spot of his in Key West. Gellhorn then struts in and leans over the bar, posterior in full view. Naturally, Hemingway notices. From there, things only go up for these literary lovers. Owen and Kidman are a great match, and each bring out the positives and negatives out of their respective roles. For every time Hemingway charms, he also demeans. Gellhorn’s cultural sensitivity is admirable, but her self-destructive streak, i.e., the majority of her relationship with Hemingway, is frustrating.

Magnetic though this pair of leads is, Kaufman’s disjointed narrative throws off some of the momentum that this romance and the gorgeously shot locales provide. The film begins with Kidman—with some impressive age makeup—performing Gellhorn as an interviewee, narrating her life to an anonymous film crew. She pops up every now and then throughout, and then later goes on to cap off the movie as were the whole story a collection of memories. In addition to the majority of the regularly shot scenes, Kaufman intersperses archival footage modified to include Kidman and Owen, ostensibly to give the proceedings something more of a “historical” edge. As presented, however, it comes off as three different ideas for a story mixed together into a confused whole. This becomes even more of a problem when the first large chunk of the movie devotes itself to the duo’s foray in Spain; at first, it seems like this will take up the bulk of the story, but ultimately it gets pushed away for some less interesting developments, particularly a long, ambling midsection where the two buy a lavish house in Key West. Because of this some promising performances and storylines, particular those involving actors Tony Shalhoub and Rodrigo Santoro, are forgotten by the long-winded final stretch.

Yet despite this narrative unevenness, Stahl and Turner’s sharp, literary script—buoyed by Kidman and Owen’s stellar turns—keeps Hemingway & Gellhorn afloat, considering that this could have been cut by a significant amount of time. The title truly does say it all: this is about nothing more than Hemingway and Gellhorn as lovers, and more importantly as writers. For all of the actual warfare that’s depicted onscreen, the true violence comes in the form of the writing both authors commit themselves to.

Hemingway, the rugged novelist, aims to capture the ugliness of war in all its brutality. Gellhorn, meanwhile, cares more about the interpersonal aspects of the war: the children separated from parents, the families torn apart by civil war, and the utter inhumanity of people killing for political gain. This is, of course, the classic gendered divide: the man is concerned about broad, philosophical ideas, and the woman cares about the compassionate, concerned side of humanity. Hemingway seems to notice this right away; his and Gellhorn’s first sexual encounter involves him pushing her against a wall to protect her from incoming bombs, an unsurprising gesture of male chivalry. From there Hemingway then slides his hand up her dress: “You have such goddamn sexual legs,” he whispers to her. One act of patriarchal dominance unsurprisingly leads to another.

And yet for all of the checks Gellhorn provides against Hemingway’s unbridled masculinity, she nevertheless ends up paling in comparison per the film’s narrative. Kaufman wisely tries to place Kidman front and center, but Hemingway’s ubiquitous status in the canon of American literature means that she faces one damn tough uphill battle in trying to provide a counterweight to “Papa”, as he is so frequently called by many of his friends. “I do not see myself as a footnote in someone else’s life,” she sternly tells the biographers filming her at the movie’s conclusion. Anyone who knows anything about literary history would likely chuckle at this line, and not without good reason; despite having a journalism prize named after her, Gellhorn’s stature will never likely measure up to Hemingway’s.

The very reason this film was made is because Gellhorn’s romance with Hemingway is so historically tantalizing, which makes her refusal to answer any questions about him at the film’s end all the more ironic. Her story is only interesting so long as she occupies Hemingway’s shadow. In the battle of her career versus his, he undoubtedly won; as she gets called away to more and more foreign war assignments, he gets more and more furious. If he can’t rein her in physically, her career could potentially outgrow his (and Gellhorn’s work as a war correspondent is highly respected). Fortunately for Hemingway, more college students read A Farewell to Arms than Gellhorn’s books.

As sad as a fact of history this is—that women have for so long only been relevant inasfar as they are tied to men—Hemingway and Gellhorn’s romance nevertheless remains an intriguing literary tale, one whose history is as complex as its characters are. Despite the cutthroat competition underlying their love, they nevertheless found an intoxication in each other, an intoxication that not even Hemingway’s beloved rum could provide. Slow dancing in a burning room they will remain, forever intertwined by their love of war and words. In the end, however, the pen and the gun are really all the same: with words one can capture a war and begin another, just as Gellhorn does to the pompous Hemingway.

“Get in the ring, Gellhorn. Start throwing some punches for what you believe in,” he instructs her early in the film, like a boxing coach to a scrappy up-and-coming fighter. She did, and in her love for Hemingway she paid the price: no one challenges Papa and comes out unscathed.

The Blu-Ray transfer is absolutely gorgeous, especially in certain parts of the Spain sequence; though the switch to archival footage is often awkward, on the whole the movie is great on the eyes. The bonus features here are not much—some commentaries and “making of” featurettes about the story and its visual effects—but given the considerable length of the actual feature itself, it’s unlikely many will want to invest any more time in the Blu-Ray.

RATING 7 / 10