Directed by Robert Benton, starring Anthony Hopkins, Nicole Kidman, Gary Sinise, Wentworth Miller and Anna Deveare Smith.

Bad puns aside, 'The Human Stain' is a bit of a mess. An ageing Classics professor (Hopkins) embarks on an unlikely relationship with a cleaner (Kidman) in the wake of a catastrophic series of events which sees his comfortable middle class existence disintegrate. In spite of a deft beginning, focussed on the fallout of political correctness gone mad, the film quickly loses the plot. The result is a series of episodes apparently unrelated to a coherent whole.

Adapted from the novel by Philip Roth, the unevenness of the tale is perhaps symptomatic of a misguided translation from page to screen. But another fundamental weakness is the casting of Kidman. In a performance that is all dour looks and bad hair, she does nothing to elevate her character from the ranks of clichéd trailer trash. Perhaps becoming a victim of over-exposure, the undoubtedly talented actress stumbles along, increasingly implausible at every turn. And the more emotional moments in particular strike a false note that is difficult to ignore.

Hopkins, on the other hand, is relatively convincing as a man grabbing his last chance at romance, negotiating the consequences of a young lover's troubled past while haunted by a sizeable sack of secrets of his own. Ever adept at conveying repressed anguish, the unexpected contradictions of his character are skilfully brought to the fore. Sinise provides engaging, if untaxing support, as the once-reclusive writer whose narration frames the story while Ed Harris skirts caricature in the under-written crazed ex-husband role.

Perhaps collapsing under the weight of multiple serious themes, 'The Human Stain' interrogates its specifically late Nineties setting. Monica Lewinsky and new wonder drug Viagra are the talk of the town. The politics of sex, power and intimacy are made central thematic concerns. On a more subtle level, the gaping hole of human loneliness stalking all the main players is well-conveyed. And, inside and out, every moment is nothing less than beautifully shot. But the problem remains, it just doesn't work as a whole.

Siobhán Mannion