Skip to main content

You were sent to Auschwitz because you stole a ham?


Sophie’s Choice
(1982)

Alan J Pakula’s Holocaust drama presumes its own importance but doesn’t pause to consider the almost wholly turgid result. Yes, the central scene (which provides the title) is powerful. But it is unable to justify the entire film; indeed, there is a strong disconnect between the indulgent thespian antics of the US sections and the flashbacks to Poland.

It could be that William Styron’s novel explores its themes more successfully but this adaptation consistently flies its colours as a literary construct, employing several layers of unnecessary artifice when the premise is potent enough. There’s the decision to make Sophie (Meryl Streep) Polish Catholic (apparently because Styron wished to emphasise that the actions of the Nazis were not limited to the Jewish people). We then learn that her law professor father was aggressively anti-Semitic, and then that Sophie was sent to Auschwitz for stealing a ham. Sophie’s lover Nathan (Kevin Kline) is Jewish and schizophrenic. There is a heavy-handed irony to the situations that have been created, seemingly at every stage. The intent appears to be to make Sophie and Nathan’s relationship poetically tragic (the highs of flights of fantasy and the lows of that ghosts of the past, depression and storming arguments) but they are never believable. This sense of design is added to by the use of a narrator, also the third person in the love triangle; young would-be author Stingo (Peter MacNicol, best known as Biscuit in Ally McBeal).

For a director whose low-key realism was a defining trait during the ‘70s, Pakula seems unable to rein in his actors. Streep accents her way to a second Oscar, aided by the make-up department delivering a ghostly pallor and severe haircut. Kline showboats like crazy (if you’ll excuse the choice of word), and it’s easy to see why John Cleese was inspired to re-apply this energy to comic effect in A Fish Called Wanda. In a comedy, a performance that feels like a performance can be fine; in a serious-minded drama it’s just distracting. MacNicol, meanwhile, is saddled with a character of such insipid naivety he makes John Boy Walton appear worldly-wise. Accordingly, he irritates throughout. The trio lack any qualities that would encourage the audience to invest in their experiences.

The script employs various reveals in relation to the characters, in addition to the tricky flashback structure. These are momentarily effective but can’t compensate for the pervading sluggishness. It’s become a cliché that films about disability or the Holocaust are Oscar bait, but here the accusation seems justified. Sophie’s Choice is overwrought and underwhelming.

**

Comments

Popular posts from this blog

He’s so persistent! He always gets his man.

Speed (1994) (SPOILERS) It must have been a couple of decades since I last viewed Speed all the way through, so it’s pleasing to confirm that it holds up. Sure, Jan de Bont’s debut as a director can’t compete with the work of John McTiernan, for whom he acted as cinematographer and who recommended de Bont when he passed on the picture, but he nevertheless does a more than competent work. Which makes his later turkeys all the more tragic. And Keanu and Sandra Bullock display the kind of effortless chemistry you can’t put a price tag on. And then there’s Dennis Hopper, having a great old sober-but-still-looning time.

Another case of the screaming oopizootics.

Doctor Who Season 14 – Worst to Best The best Doctor Who season? In terms of general recognition and unadulterated celebration, there’s certainly a strong case to be made for Fourteen. The zenith of Robert Holmes and Philip Hinchcliffe’s plans for the series finds it relinquishing the cosy rapport of the Doctor and Sarah in favour of the less-trodden terrain of a solo adventure and underlying conflict with new companion Leela. More especially, it finds the production team finally stretching themselves conceptually after thoroughly exploring their “gothic horror” template over the course of the previous two seasons (well, mostly the previous one).

He is a brigand and a lout. Pay him no serious mention.

The Wind and the Lion (1975) (SPOILERS) John Milius called his second feature a boy’s-own adventure, on the basis of the not-so-terrified responses of one of those kidnapped by Sean Connery’s Arab Raisuli. Really, he could have been referring to himself, in all his cigar-chomping, gun-toting reactionary glory, dreaming of the days of real heroes. The Wind and the Lion rather had its thunder stolen by Jaws on release, and it’s easy to see why. As polished as the picture is, and simultaneously broad-stroke and self-aware in its politics, it’s very definitely a throwback to the pictures of yesteryear. Only without the finger-on-the-pulse contemporaneity of execution that would make Spielberg and Lucas’ genre dives so memorable in a few short years’ time.

No matter how innocent you are, or how hard you try, they’ll find you guilty.

The Wrong Man (1956) (SPOILERS) I hate to say it, but old Truffaut called it right on this one. More often than not showing obeisance to the might of Hitchcock during his career-spanning interview, the French critic turned director was surprisingly blunt when it came to The Wrong Man . He told Hitch “ your style, which has found its perfection in the fiction area, happens to be in total conflict with the aesthetics of the documentary and that contradiction is apparent throughout the picture ”. There’s also another, connected issue with this, one Hitch acknowledged: too much fidelity to the true story upon which the film is based.

The game is rigged, and it does not reward people who play by the rules.

Hustlers (2019) (SPOILERS) Sold as a female Goodfellas – to the extent that the producers had Scorsese in mind – this strippers-and-crime tale is actually a big, glossy puff piece, closer to Todd Phillips as fashioned by Lorene Scarfia. There are some attractive performances in Hustlers, notably from Constance Wu, but for all its “progressive” women work male objectification to their advantage posturing, it’s incredibly traditional and conservative deep down.

But everything is wonderful. We are in Paris.

Cold War (2018) (SPOILERS) Pawel Pawlikowski’s elliptical tale – you can’t discuss Cold War without saying “elliptical” at least once – of frustrated love charts a course that almost seems to be a caricature of a certain brand of self-congratulatorily tragic European cinema. It was, it seems “ loosely inspired ” by his parents (I suspect I see where the looseness comes in), but there’s a sense of calculation to the progression of this love story against an inescapable political backdrop that rather diminishes it.

What do they do, sing madrigals?

The Singing Detective (2003) Icon’s remake of the 1986 BBC serial, from a screenplay by Dennis Potter himself. The Singing Detective fares less well than Icon’s later adaptation of Edge of Darkness , even though it’s probably more faithful to Potter’s original. Perhaps the fault lies in the compression of six episodes into a feature running a quarter of that time, but the noir fantasy and childhood flashbacks fail to engage, and if the hospital reality scans better, it too suffers eventually.

That’s what people call necromancer’s weather.

The Changes (1975) This adaptation of Peter Dickinson’s novel trilogy carries a degree of cult nostalgia cachet due to it being one of those more “adult” 1970s children’s serials (see also The Children of the Stones , The Owl Service ). I was too young to see it on its initial screening – or at any rate, too young to remember it – but it’s easy to see why it lingered in the minds of those who did. Well, the first episode, anyway. Not for nothing is The Changes seen as a precursor to The Survivors in the rural apocalypse sub-genre – see also the decidedly nastier No Blade of Grass – as following a fairly gripping opener, it drifts off into the realm of plodding travelogue.

You don’t know anything about this man, and he knows everything about you.

The Man Who Knew Too Much (1956) (SPOILERS) Hitchcock’s two-decades-later remake of his British original. It’s undoubtedly the better-known version, but as I noted in my review of the 1934 film, it is very far from the “ far superior ” production Truffaut tried to sell the director on during their interviews. Hitchcock would only be drawn – in typically quotable style – that “ the first version is the work of a talented amateur and the second was made by a professional ”. For which, read a young, creatively fired director versus one clinically going through the motions, occasionally inspired by a shot or sequence but mostly lacking the will or drive that made the first The Man Who Knew Too Much such a pleasure from beginning to end.

I don’t want to spend the holidays dead.

National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation (1989) (SPOILERS) Chevy Chase gets a bad rap. By which, I don’t mean the canvas of opinion suggesting he really is a bit of a tool in real life is misplaced, as there’s no shortage of witnesses to his antics (head of the pack being probably Bill Murray, whose brother Brian appears here as Clark’s boss). But rather that, during his – relatively brief – heyday, I was a genuine fan of his deadpan delivery in the likes of Caddyshack and Fletch . The National Lampoon’s Vacation movies, even the initial trilogy overseen by John Hughes, are very hit-and-miss affairs, but it’s Chase, with his almost Basil Fawlty-esque ability both to put his foot in it and deliver withering put-downs, who forms their irrepressibly upbeat core.