Hemingway Gellhorn Kidman Owen
Credit: Karen Ballard/HBO

Early on in HBO’s Hemingway and Gellhorn, I kept thinking, “What a crock!” almost every time Hemingway (Clive Owen) or Martha Gellhorn (Nicole Kidman) opened their mouths. Then I got into the rhythm of what the filmmakers were doing during the TV-movie’s premiere on Monday night: Fearlessly allowing these two hard-boiled literary figures to utter their mostly-full-of-crap pronunciamentos about life, love, and the whole damn thing while redeeming them as historical figures by placing them in the context of their time. A time in which some people actually said things like, “We knew our cause was just and we could not lose,” and no one laughed in their faces.

Whether you laughed at your TV screen while hearing this glorious guff is another matter. Director Philip Kaufman and his screenwriters, Jerry Stahl and Barbara Turner, made a film that might be described with the phrase I believe I heard Hemingway utter early on here — “a big creamy bitch,” one that dares you to ignore it. For a two-and-a-half-hour-plus biopic, it was maddeningly, irresistibly watchable. Every time I thought I was going to throw in the towel (which usually occurred when Kidman appeared as Gellhorn in old-lady make-up, lowering her voice in an inadvertent Boris Karloff impersonation), the film simply took off in a fresh direction and I was hooked all over again.

H&G followed Hemingway from 1936, when he meets Gellhorn — now less well-known but in her time a famous war correspondent — to their (do I need to say “tumultuous”?) marriage on through to his suicide in 1961. The movie was structured to have Gellhorn tell most of the story, and so what we’re shown is an idealized Hemingway, a writer working at pretty much full power, exerting the influence of his growing fame, and having his way at the expense of nearly everyone around him, including the wife who preceded Gellhorn, Pauline, played by the wonderful actor Molly Parker in a manner that tries to evade a grasping quality built into her lines.

Once you got past Hemingway’s annoying habit of referring to Gellhorn as “Gellhorn” (imagine calling your wife by her maiden name all the time as a term of endearment and distancing, as in his career pep-talk exhortation, “Get in the ring, Gellhorn, and see what you’re made of!”), H&G became a fully romantic portrait of two people turned on by their work, their times (the Spanish Civil War, the Normandy invasion, the rise of Franco, Mussolini, and Hitler), and each other. The sex scenes had already drawn some attention for the stars’ willingness to go nude, but in Kaufman’s frame, nothing seemed more natural — H & G had brawled and debated in full dress as lustily as they had sex.

The production — Kaufman’s first TV-movie — was chock-full of real-life people played by familiar actors. David Strathairn was marvelous as a John Dos Passos who was at once full of his own idealism and hopelessly out-classed by Hemingway when it came to rip-roaring rhetoric. (Someone could do a Dos Passos movie and the power-struggle could be easily flipped.) Popping up in smaller roles were Peter Coyote as editor Maxwell Perkins, Robert Duvall as a Russian General and Joan Chen as Madame Chiang Kai-shek.

Working on a relatively small budgets, the director stages battle scenes and globe-trotting locations that were mostly shot around Kaufman’s Northern California home base. This is Kaufman’s second ampersanded biopic (the other was 1990’s Henry & June, about Henry Miller), and he knows how to bring the larger than life down to scale, and when to ramp ’em up. There’s a lot of dialogue that sounds as studied as Hemingway must have intended it to sound as he declaimed it (“Let me tell you about writers — the best ones are all liars”) and stuff that’s almost certainly cobbled together from various sources. (I was particularly amused when a negative review of the movie today in The New York Times made a point of ridiculing one Hemingway line — “There’s nothing to writing, Gellhorn — all you do is sit down to your typewriter and bleed” — but failed to realize it most likely derived from a New York Times sportswriter Red Smith’s wry dictum, “Writing it easy; all you have to do is open a vein and bleed.)

Owen, in a beautifully controlled turn as ”Papa,” modulated Hemingway’s egotism, rants, and vulnerable moments, right on through to the elderly writer and the always tricky to pull off suicide moment. Kidman gave one of her loosest, most enjoyable performances as Gellhorn. Both writers come off as passionate egomaniacs with literary gifts so undeniable, you can’t help but enjoy them. Yes, they must have been insufferable to spend a lot of time around (“Writing’s like Mass; God gets mad if you don’t show up” — oh, put a sock in it, Ernest!). But Hemingway & Gellhorn let you see the kind of robust lives two willful people could live, existences about which we can now only dream about.

Twitter: @kentucker