Friday, 29 June 2007
Sophie’s Choice (1982) dir. Alan J. Pakula
Starring: Meryl Streep, Peter MacNichol, Kevin Kline
After watching the AFI Top 100 American films list, I decided to watch one of its new additions – “Sophie’s Choice”. I knew only two things about the film: one, the tragic “choice” that Sophie has to make and reason for the title, and two, Meryl Streep’s grand performance. Perhaps my background to the film clouded my viewing experience, but it didn’t come close to any of my expectations. Many of you are thinking - “Sophie’s Choice” is so heartbreaking; it’s a classic; but Meryl Streep is so good? Bah humbug. It was a slow, tedious and poorly executed missed opportunity of a film.
The film is set after World War II and told from the point of view of Stingo (Peter MacNichol) a naïve young writer from the south who has come to New York City to author his first book. He quickly befriends two of his new neighbours: Sophie, a lovely and playful Polish immigrant and Nathan (Kevin Kline) her eccentric, rowdy, yet intellectual lover. Together they form a “Jules and Jim” meets “Talented Mr. Ripley” type of threesome. They don’t go into true ménage-a-trois territory, but their relationship is anchored by their mutual attraction to Sophie. Nathan, though gregarious and fun, is also passive-aggressive and prone to violent irrational freak-outs. Yet somehow Stingo and Sophie always go back to him.
During the convalescence from Nathan’s fits of madness, Stingo slowly discovers a series of lies Sophie has told about her mysterious past. As Stingo gains Sophie’s trust she opens up about her experiences in a concentration camp during the War. Though not a Jew, she was interned in Auschwitz with her two children, and suffered egregious emotional turmoil. I won’t spoil it, but a big reveal at the end unveils the difficult choice she was forced to make at the hands of the Nazi’s. Her choice has informed the rest of the decisions later in life, including her tortured relationship with Nathan.
The story of “Sophie’s Choice” is certainly compelling and Meryl Streep disappears into her character, and the actual scene of the “choice” is heartbreaking. Unfortunately the film is structured around a fluffy romp-in-the-city threesome plotline not worthy of the tragedy of the Holocaust. Kevin Kline’s over-the-top… uh..Kevin Kline-ness overpowers both MacNichol and Streep in all their scenes. The actual screentime devoted to Sophie’s past is treated almost as an aside for most of the film. Though Sophie’s guilty past is supposed to be the reason for her destructive behaviour in the present it’s never fully fused together. It feels like two different films.
Stingo’s aged voiceover in the present is unnecessary. It sounds as if it were Stingo looking back and telling the story from many years in the future, but we never see Stingo as an aged man and so the voice doesn’t match the character we see on screen.
These incongruous elements complicate a story that doesn’t need complicating. The film is about Sophie’s choice (hence the title), and I don’t see how a linearly told story from beginning to end, without flashbacks wouldn’t be a better film. The film was based on a novel (which I haven’t read), and perhaps the structure worked in print, but its translation to the screen, in my mind, reduces the power of the story.
I don’t know if audiences in 1982 watched the film knowing the ending as I did. Perhaps they didn’t, and perhaps it’s why the film was so acclaimed in its day. But its inclusion on the AFI list makes me think that the voters voted purely on the memory of 25 years ago. Overall, “Sophie’s Choice” may be a ‘time-and-place’ film, but it doesn’t have the staying power to stand the test of time. Ok, bring it on!
Buy it here: Sophie's Choice