& GELLHORN’ ★★
8 to 10:40 p.m. Monday on HBO
Updated: July 3, 2012 9:59AM
The HBO film “Hemingway & Gellhorn” recounts the roller-coaster relationship between two of the country’s most respected novelists and war correspondents of the 20th century.
British actor Clive Owen (“Closer”) and Oscar winner Nicole Kidman portray the titular couple in the 2½-hour epic directed by Philip Kaufman (“The Unbearable Lightness of Being,” “The Right Stuff”), making his TV debut.
The cameras follow the blustery Ernest Hemingway and the woman who would become his third wife, intrepid journalist Martha Gellhorn, as they chase each other around the globe chronicling the Spanish Civil War and other conflicts while engaging in steamy sex scenes along the way.
“We were good in war,” an elderly, steely Gellhorn says in one of several voice-overs. “When there was no war, we made our own. The battlefield neither of us could survive was domestic life.”
The film’s colorful subject matter and impressive pedigree scream surefire hit, but the historical drama is bogged down by misses. The action is overly melodramatic. The dialogue, at times, pretentious. The accents, erratic. Tony Shalhoub (“Monk”) and Robert Duvall lay it on comically thick as “Russkies,” and Kidman — who otherwise delivers a strong performance — seems to vacillate between refined Brit and tough-talking brawd, sometimes in the same scene.
Shot entirely on location in the San Francisco region, “Hemingway & Gellhorn” nonetheless has enough settings to give even seasoned travelers jet lag: Spain, China, Cuba, Finland, Germany, London, New York and Key West, Fla. The film frequently shifts from color to grainy sepia and black-and-white in what I’m sure is a commendable cinematographic feat, but one that becomes distracting and momentum-thwarting after a while.
Other technological tricks thrust the actors into historical newsreel footage — in a Forrest Gump-like fashion. There the couple is in the White House, kibitzing with the Roosevelts! There goes Gellhorn, running through a Nazi death camp!
Subplots — that would be you, author John Dos Passos (David Strathairn) — do little other than tack on precious minutes to an already lengthy running time.
There’s no disputing that Hemingway and Gellhorn were interesting people with XL egos who led dramatic, adventurous lives. The film does a decent job portraying that. But their inherently compelling story is cheapened by too many gimmicks and a lack of focus, sins that the writers Hemingway and Gellhorn managed to avoid in real life.