‘Hemingway & Gellhorn’ and the Perils of Instagram Cinematography

Hemingway & Gellhorn, HBO’s splashy biopic of Ernest (a mustached Clive Owen) and journalist Martha (an ass-baring Nicole Kidman) has been thoroughly filleted by my fellow critics, and I’m not going to replicate their complaints against what I found to be an oddly trite movie. But there was one thing I found rather striking about it, though more as a cautionary tale than as a thing to praise: the shifts between dramatically different styles of cinematography. Watching Hemingway & Gellhorn felt more than a little like flipping through an Instagram stream, though to less evocative effect.

There’s nothing inherently wrong with juxtaposing these different styles and signaling changes in tone for a pair of extremely mercurial people. When Hemingway battles a marlin in Key West, the frame is saturated in blues that in a final shot are soaked in red to mark his suicide by shotgun. In Cuba, and in the throes of marital bliss, they’re captured in blurry pops of color. The image takes on an HD sharpness when it lingers on the breasts and buttocks of dancers in a club who inspire Hemingway and Gellhorn to slip away from a drunken twist, the sight of these beautiful women in their act and changing costumes heightening their mutual desire.

But when it come to the couples’ work, the stylistic showiness of Hemingway & Gellhorn ends up distancing us from the emotion it wants to convey rather than strengthening it. When Hemingway and Gellhorn are working together in Spain during the Spanish Civil War, she filing dispatches for Collier’s, he shooting The Spanish Earth, the movie captures them in the sepia tones and occasionally jerky moments that replicate the kind of footage he and his crew are capturing. When Gellhorn sees a burned baby in China or encounters a young girl with a pet turtle in an opium den, they’re in black-and-white, which lends a documentary cast to her encounters, but also means we don’t have to reckon with the full, horrifying state of the baby’s skin, the damage done to the young girl. And when Gellhorn flees the sight of the horrors at Dachau, she stumbles through a Brothers’ Grimm-style forest cast in mossy grays. Maybe the show’s budget prevented a full-scale or even minor-scale recreation of a concentration camp, but the sequence ends up treating her more like a fairy-tale heroine than a correspondent bearing witness. She sees ugliness, her capacity to bear witness to it is one of the things that defines her, but the movie can’t bear to show us anything but loveliness even in the midst of Gellhorn’s trauma. Both of these sequences would have had much more power had they been presented straightforwardly, if we saw what she saw with a Hollywood approximation of how she saw it.

The thing that’s fun about Instagram is that we can use it to make our lives look more heightened and dramatic than they usually are. But Ernest Hemingway and Martha Gellhorn’s lives are supposed to already be as exciting as we’d like to make ours look. The flashiness of the cinematography in Hemingway & Gellhorn feels like an indication of lack of confidence in their story, rather than the deployment of available tactics where they’re needed. Just because you can saturate something with color or swath it in sepia doesn’t mean you have to.