Good Lord! Is it that time again? I think it is, so get ready for another Summer Film Challenge 2012: Apocalypse Edition review, and folks this one is a doozy! Ryan and I thought we were done with emotionally dank films from the past in this challenge when we saw The Deer Hunter, but somehow this film snuck up and laid its “wet blanket” of angst on us. And to top it off, it’s a war film just like Deer Hunter! Despite its depressive mood, the film is well cast and reminiscent of some great old literature, so prepare yourselves for Sophie’s Choice.
Ryan and I saw this film well over a week ago and both of us have been trying to figure out how to talk about it. It’s dark, it’s depressing, it’s awkward and all over the place. It feels like someone decided to cross Schindler’s List with elements from The Great Gatsby and a B plot (question mark) that is straight out of A Beautiful Mind. In short, Sophie’s Choice is a film that doesn’t seem to know what it wants, which is a direct macrocosm of the life of the title character therein.
Let’s get the easy part out of the way – the casting is brilliant. I love Peter MacNicol! He has a beautiful, quirky nervousness about him which makes his timidity and sheepishness so fun and believable as the young writer, Stingo. He is perfectly offset by Kevin Kline’s outrageous and flamboyant Nathan (who might or might not be a reflection of Kline’s own craziness). And of course, the radiance of beauty herself, Meryl Streep gives yet another near flawless performance, and I only say nearly because it is almost impossible to pull off a true Prussian accent but she does it. Every part of the casting is brilliant and each actor brings a fantastic life to their character.
Now for the more difficult task of tackling the plot at large. I make the comparisons to Schindler’s and Gatsby because it is hard to tell exactly what story the filmmakers are trying to tell. The action begins in a very quaint, aristocratic manner reminiscent of Fitzgerald’s world – focusing on the daily musings and adventures of a few normal citizens. Even Stingo’s writing/narration reminds me of the stylized ultra-realism that accompanied the Modernist movement.
Yet, at odd moments, the narrative shifts from the modern workings of the happy but disturbed trio to long and atonal remembrances of Sophie’s former life in Nazi Europe. And while these flashbacks are interesting, well told, and certainly necessary to provide backstory and bring characters together, they become cancerous and grow out of control. Rather than enhancing the narrative already in place, the flashbacks tend to take over the plot and tell a wholly different of story. It leads to several moments that feel very monologue-y and overly explanatory – like the character took an aside to share with the audience a connected but distant bit of his/her own backstory before getting back to their own plotline. One scene in particular felt a lot like a Noir opening, with Sophie staring off into the distance and waxing on about her life in Nazi occupied Poland (“I knew that Blitzkrieg was trouble from the minute those Panzers rolled through my front door…”). The disjointedness of the two story-lines causes a severe narrative rift which makes the film really hard to stay illusioned in and thus is its great downfall.
In short, I think Sophie’s Choice as a whole reflects a nature that is very similar to Nathan’s. It has two excellent and well-thought out halves which have been abruptly smashed together in a somewhat sensical, if schizophrenic, final product. As for Sophie’s actual choice, you can feel free to take your pick from a large selection: her decision to leave Poland, to stay with Nathan, to befriend Stingo, to run away with Stingo, to help the Resistance, or the one that the film means to convince you it is. Any way you slice it, her choiceS (plural) make up who she is as a character, and I did think that this was handled well. Whereas it could have been a horribly blunt and obvious title gimmick (cf – The Ultimate Gift), Sophie’s Choice managed to make the sum total of her decisions matter rather than just the indicated, singular one.
Ultimately I thought the film was good but not as well executed as Deer Hunter. It was just as poignant at times and had extremely heart-wrenching moments just like the former. I would even go as far as to say that I liked the tone of this film better that Deer Hunter, though I don’t think many would disagree with me in better enjoying a film ending in hope rather than one ending in “patriotic perseverance”. Particularly, I gave Sophie’s Choice serious brownie points for the beautiful last line which is a paraphrase of sorts from an Emily Dickinson poem: “I let go the rage and sorrow for Sophie and Nathan… and for the many others who were but a few of the butchered and betrayed and martyred children of the Earth. When I could finally see again, I saw the first rays of daylight reflected in the murky river. This was not judgment day. Only morning; morning, excellent and fair.”
If you would like a film that will challenge you with a depressing and somewhat chaotic tone, that will give you better insight into the question of why we do what we do, Sophie’s Choice is an excellent one for you to pick up. It ambles along a bit and loses its way many times, but it does get its message across and does so in a very pretty manner. Give it a shot, but be prepared with some tissues and a good literary background, and I think you will enjoy it.
Finally I can move beyond this film! I did enjoy watching it but coming up with a solid review has been almost Herculean. Ryan and I both really struggled to get our thoughts down in print but check out how much better we did on the podcast:
We are entering the final stretch of the SFC 2012 and Ryan and I are both extremely close to finishing the race. The order of our reviews and podcasts might get a little wonky over the next few weeks and I doubt either of us will have every review up by the September 5th deadline but both of us should get all of the movies watched by then. My next adventure will be to that great, elusive city of which I have always dreamed – Paris – and I will be spending the evening there with Woody Allen, Owen Wilson, and a few surprise guests. So join me again soon for my next review of last year’s Oscar nominated Midnight in Paris.