Tuesday 14 July 2009

Sophie's Choice (1982)

Director: Alan J Pakula
Stars: Meryl Streep, Kevin Kline and Peter MacNicol

This one was always going to seem a little weird. It has the reputation of being a serious film: after all, it's about a concentration camp survivor. How frivolous could it be? I've been watching early Meryl Streep movies lately, working my way through Kramer vs Kramer and The French Lieutenant's Woman, so this is a logical next step. Yet while she's the title character and who everyone talks about with regards to this film, she's only one of three names to appear before the title. The other two, Kevin Kline and Peter MacNicol, just don't seem to fit, though perhaps that's mostly because I watched A Fish Called Wanda last night.

Kline was hardly new in 1982, as he'd already won two Tony awards but this was the first time that anyone had seen him on screen. Technically he made the screen adaptation of his Broadway hit The Pirates of Penzance first but that wasn't released until after this film. What surprised me most was just how similar his role is here, at least initially, to Otto the psychopath from A Fish Called Wanda six years later. Nathan Landau, Sophie's boyfriend, doesn't eat fish, collect weapons or stick chips up people's noses, but he's crazy in many of the same ways. The difference, of course, is that Nathan isn't crazy all the time.

From an initial scene that marks him as an angry and volatile boyfriend, he rapidly gains our sympathy because as we soon discover, he's the salvation of our heroine, Sophie Zawistowski. He isn't her first salvation, given that she's already survived Auschwitz, the murder of her husband and her father by the Nazis and a suicide attempt to boot, while dealing with survivor guilt; but six months after she finds her way to the States and collapses in a public library, he saves her from anaemia and becomes her very close friend. He seems to be very good for her indeed but there's depth and complexity to their relationship.

He definitely has a dark side, a highly abusive and dangerous dark side. He's a Jew, though Sophie is not; she was apparently sent to the camps for being a Polish Catholic. He seems to love her for who she is, but he hates her for surviving when six million of his race didn't. He has mood swings that are palpable. He and Sophie both are characters with many layers, that we gradually unpeel as the film goes on but which they don't unpeel to each other. There are things that they just do not speak of and there are things that they cloak in lies and silence.

And into our film comes a third character, played by Peter MacNicol in his second film. He's Stingo, a writer from the South who wanders his way north to New York where he ends up in a pink apartment in Brooklyn right under Sophie's room, quickly becoming a huge part of her life and, by extension, of Nathan's. Soon the three of them do everything together, but as we discover, this is but the surface and there's a lot going on unseen beneath it. Eventually it's to Stingo that their stories are related, Sophie's by herself and Nathan's by his brother. They are both broken people living as much as they can, and it's through Stingo, the writer, that we discover who they really are.

This is some seriously powerful material to throw at actors new to the game. Meryl Streep was the veteran, appearing in only her eighth film, but with ability well beyond her years. She'd made something of an impact in her few years in the industry, with one Academy Award and two further nominations. Here she consolidated her reputation as the great actress of the modern day by giving what many call the greatest performance of her career. It's a dream part for an actress, spanning decades, two countries and a notable change in weight. It also required not just the ability to speak English with a Polish accent but also to speak Polish and German. There are a slew of scenes in Auschwitz where we don't hear a single word of English.

Kevin Kline and Peter MacNicol take a little getting used to, because I know them so much from films so utterly unlike this one. While there's a lot of Otto from A Fish Called Wanda in Nathan Landau, there's nothing in Stingo that I recognise from Janosz in Ghostbusters II or Dr Larry Fleinhart from Numb3rs. MacNicol is from Dallas, TX, which surprised me given what I'm used to him sounding like, but he manages a decent southern accent. Kline sounds like what I expect him to sound like. But they were new to film, untried talents who had yet to prove themselves. That wasn't something that could be said after people saw this film, however much Meryl Streep's towering performance overshadows everything else in it.

It really is a gem of the modern cinema, something not easily forgotten and something worthy of whatever accolades it receives. The Oscars are full of winners whose wins are easily argued, some more than others and some are difficult to justify, from Cimarron to Titanic. But when someone wins and nobody complains, like Meryl Streep for Kramer vs Kramer and then she promptly turns in a performance that dwarfs it, we can't help but realise how great it is. There is no comparison between her work here and anything else I've seen her in.

This isn't quite what I expected, but I was stunned. The story is a multi-layered creature that we gradually unpeel as the film goes on, each layer of which poses serious questions, not just about where the film is going but where its taking its characters and where it has already taken them. Some of the story unfolds with a light heart but when the weight kicks in, it's a heavy and palpable thing. It can't be ignored. The acting is universally excellent, anchored by Meryl Streep's performance, and the filmmaking is up to backing them up.

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