Sunday, August 8, 2010

Souls on a verge of a romantic breakdown

MacNicol, Streep, and Kline sitting carelessly on a Brooklyn roof. Being romantic and stuff.

Meryl Streep. Sophie's Choice. Keep freaking out about that performance but...

Sophie's Choice is an extraordinarily uneven film about the lives of three extraordinarily uneven characters.

Stingo (Peter MacNicol) is a naive young man from the south with dreams of becoming a writer. He arrives in Brooklyn, New York in 1940s to fulfill that romantic dream.

At his boarding house, he meets Nathan (Kevin Kline) and Sophie (Meryl Streep), a couple who is complex and fun-loving, volatile and exciting, chaotic and romantic. Nathan and Sophie are unlike anything Stingo has ever seen. They dress up on Sundays, have spontaneous trips to Coney Island, and impromptu celebrations in their room. The film, for that brief period, very much become the American version of Jules and Jim.

Stingo worships Nathan, a man who claims to be a biologist on the verge of a scientific breakthrough. But at the same time, Stingo falls for Sophie, a Polish Holocaust survivor who is more than meets the eye. Nathan, who suffers from periods of paranoia, begins to suspect an affair brewing between Stingo and Sophie.

When Nathan becomes completely unreasonable, Sophie still stands by him. He saved her life upon her arrival to the U.S. He was there for her. She loves him and she knows that, deep down, he loves her, despite his angry accusations.

More is revealed about Sophie's past in the flashback scenes--stories Sophie narrates to a curious Stingo. She was in a Nazi concentration camp and suffered extreme heartbreak. Memories that she could never, ever let go. Memories that made her who she is today.

Except that the Sophie in the war and post-war scenes do not quite connect. Sophie makes similar decisions, thematically, and clings desperately to hope, but she is not a character who rapidly evolves. She, like all the dreamers of 1940s Brooklyn, is a hopeless romantic and has probably always been one. Yes, she suffered many unimaginable hardships, but there is little to indicate that she has changed into a stronger person who can and will stand on her own.

Streep's performance in this film has become legendary. And yes, she is, indeed, very good, but not exactly "the best performance of all-time" material. She takes on a Polish accent, yes, but I have no idea whether or not it is authentic. But Sophie is not a passionate or admirable character. In fact, Sophie is surprisingly passive, dependent, and, in a way, a weak character who hopes for the best, but takes no action to assure the desired outcome. I understand there are many people like that, but here is a woman who has gone through so much and seem to have learned so little.

The harrowing scene near the conclusion is also legendary. But that scene, while wonderfully directed, heartbreaking, and features a spectacular performance by the child actress (Jennifer Lawn) who portrays Sophie's daughter, comes much too out-of-blue to be considered a strong scene in the context of the film.

Kline is full of enthusiasm and bursting with energy. His Nathan boasts of this primitive, romantic nature of a classic bohemian lifestyle. Nathan is an interesting character, but sometimes, it feels like the film just only scratched the surface of his poor, artistic soul. There is more about Nathan than meets the eye, and thanks to Kline, a glimmer of that is revealed.

MacNicol's Stingo, the bland Nick to Nathan's adventurous Gatsby, is passive, boring, and the very last person I would like to hear this story from. Stingo wants to experience life, but he is so two-dimensional and blandly eager, that he comes off as childish and self-pitying. He writes a story about his mother's death and by Nathan's reaction in a moment of insanity, he seems to feel more sorrow for himself than his dead mother. That is Stingo in a neat little nutshell.

The film, weakly woven together by director Alan J. Pakula, yet beautifully shot by Nesto Almendors and features a glorious score by Marvin Hamlisch, is a mixed bag of sorts. There are times where the film almost achieves what it hopes to achieve, which is a expose about the hopelessly romantic and their tortured lives, but the result is a barely beating heart of three hopeless, unfortunate souls who sought solace in the most questionable places. C


  1. Interesting perspective. I like Paluka and I remember liking this film a little, Meryl was good, great even but that was one hell of a year for actresses and I still think I like Jessica Lange in Frances and Julie Andrews in Victor Victoria more - but I haven't seen any of the three in years.

  2. Its really a great think When Nathan becomes completely unreasonable, Sophie still stands by him. Very romantic feelings.