Correction: An earlier version of this article incorrectly said that Ernest Hemingway’s suicide came 25 years after Martha Gellhorn left him. It came 15 years afterward. The story has been updated.
HBO’s “Hemingway & Gellhorn,” airing Monday night, is quite the slab of literary ham. Intending to re-create the torrid romance between two of the 20th century’s most talented writers, this fanciful but slapdash movie instead portrays a couple who engaged in a decade or so of grudge sex, using civil wars and populist uprisings as their preferred marital aids.
Clive Owen and Nicole Kidman star as Ernest Hemingway and Martha Gellhorn, two people who couldn’t get turned on unless guerrilla forces were advancing over a nearby hill. Co-stars include everything you nominally loved about your American Lit seminar: portable typewriters, marlin fishing, banyan fans, foreign datelines and grimy hotel-lobby bistros where the windows are suddenly shattered by the sort of revolutionary bombs that mainly just shatter windows. There’s also David Strathairn as a haughtily righteous John Dos Passos and — wait, what? — Metallica drummer Lars Ulrich as propagandizing filmmaker Joris Ivens.
There’s plenty of scenery to be gnawed on, and everybody in the movie, especially Owen, appears to be having some fun gnawing on it. But “Hemingway & Gellhorn,” directed by Philip Kaufman (“The Unbearable Lightness of Being”) from a script by Jerry Stahl and Barbara Turner, is overly enamored with its ridiculous sense of sweep. It sweeps and sweeps and sweeps. It sweeps for at least a half-hour too long, needlessly sweeping itself all the way to Hemingway’s suicide, 15 years after Gellhorn dumped him. (She also killed herself, in 1998, facing blindness and deteriorating health.)
The film’s dialogue — which awkwardly attempts to mirror the banter of Hollywood classics — is mainly in service only to the plot, in which Hemingway and Gellhorn meet in Florida in 1936 and traipse off to the Spanish Civil War. There, she files magazine dispatches for Collier’s while he bigfoots around to help Ivens and Dos Passos film a documentary.
Soon enough, Ernest and Martha hop into bed. More bombs go off around them, plaster actually falls off the walls, and she feels . . . nothing. Well, perhaps something. (Not Papa’s fault. Gellhorn once famously called herself “the worst bed partner in five continents.”)
Against her better judgment, Gellhorn eventually becomes the third Mrs. Hemingway, spending long stretches of time with him at their secluded Cuban casita. She occasionally goes off to report on more wars while he finishes “For Whom the Bell Tolls.” World War II beckons them both; he vaingloriously swipes her Collier’s assignment and she has to get to D-Day by talking her way onto a hospital boat. He seems unimpressed with the war, while she sloshes ashore at Normandy and eventually gets a life-altering look at the horrors of the Holocaust. Not long after the Allied victory, Hemingway starts cheating on Gellhorn with the eventual fourth Mrs. Hemingway (played by Parker Posey). When he and his new lover are injured in a car crash, Gellhorn shows up in his London hospital room, where he taunts her:
“If you didn’t come by to gloat, why did you come?”
“I guess I just came by for a divorce,” she says.
And so it went. She spent the rest of her long career trying not to be a mere footnote to his biography.
Him, you know all about. Her, not so much, which is too bad. If nothing else comes of “Hemingway & Gellhorn,” perhaps you will be moved, as I was, to Google poor Martha and enjoy some of her passionately subjective war correspondence, much of which is as good as anything Hemingway ever filed. He got immortality; she got a postage stamp.
Owen has plenty to work with, turning up the volume on the larger-than-life Hemingway that Corey Stoll conjured in Woody Allen’s “Midnight in Paris.” It’s all too easy for Owen — the heavy drinking, the macho fisticuffs, the furious typing. The screenplay even recounts a famous New York fracas in which Hemingway attempts to brawl with a book critic who dismissively wrote: “Come out from behind that false hair on your chest, Ernest. We all know you.” Buttons flying off his shirt, Owen’s Hemingway challenges the aesthete to a chest-hair-measuring contest. By this point, “Hemingway and Gellhorn” has become a movie for people who love old bookstores but perhaps don’t own very many books.
Kidman, meanwhile, finds herself in a pickle similar to the one she encountered in Baz Luhrmann’s overexuberant “Australia,” which was also distracted by its sweaty, beautiful brute — in that case, Hugh Jackman. Who can compete? The Kate Hepburn wardrobe and the period sets complement Kidman just fine, but the way the part is written gives Gellhorn (and Kidman) a strange case of impostor syndrome. Her character just can’t keep up with the story as told; it’s all Hem.
The wonder of special-effects makeup impressively transforms Kidman into an elderly version of Gellhorn for a few interstitial scenes in which she is looking back on those eventful years. Only then do we get a deeper sense of what this woman might have been like; the screenwriting becomes less intrusive and more meaningful. Kidman’s range finally get a suitable workout, as she takes on a heavy, cigarette-leaden voice and a hardened attitude.
The visual style of “Hemingway & Gellhorn” also takes a couple of cues from the Luhrmann school, weaving various celluloid tricks together in a nostalgic sepia swirl — even inserting Owen and Kidman’s characters into found-footage reels.
It’s a cute trick, but it can’t make up for the fact that the story is as thin as the onion-skin paper on which its characters bang out their prose. There’s a fine line between period styling and the English Department’s costume party, and “Hemingway & Gellhorn” rumbas way past it.
(2 hours, 30 minutes) premieres Monday at 9 p.m. on HBO.