on 28 November 2000
A story set after the second world war in New York, about the relationship between 3 people. Peter McNicol (better known for his role in 'Alley McBeal') is a young wided eyed aspiring writer who falls in with a couple (Streep and Kline) whose outwardly exuberent lives hide something darker, and for Streep a Polish immigrant, we are as the film unfolds wondering what ghosts she is struggling to free herself from. This unfolds beautifully as we observe the peice through the eyes of McNicol as he comes of age. Through his freindship with Steep, whose spell he falls under, he eventually comes to learn about the demons that haunt Kline and heatbreakingly those of Streep. McNicol is good but Kline and Streep turn in performances of real depth and intensity which I would challange anyone not to be moved by. This is Streep at the height of her powers.
William Styron's epic novel "Sophie's Choice," is a magnificent tour de force from one of America's great writers. Through Styron's own very public battle with depression, which he courageously wrote about in his book "Darkness Visible", he had a deeper understanding of the dark places that the human mind can travel too. It was a book that he was well qualified to write, and was one that only a handful of authors could have attempted. It is also a book that I would have considered almost impossible to film. Who could possibly convey the emotions going on inside Sophie's tortured mind? Who could possibly inhabit the paranoid schizophrenic mind of Nathan? It is a big ask, and very brave of that talented director Alan J Pakula to attempt it. I tend to remember Pakula from the excellent western , "Comes a Horseman", although you may remember him more for films like "Klute," and "All the Presidents Men." As is often the case, when having read the book, I would not have rated Pakula's chances of making a good film very highly. But I very glad to say that I would have been completely wrong. This is a very good film indeed!
The holocaust has been broached by film makers in many different ways. Spielberg famously took us directly to the heart of the atrocities in the concentration camps with "Schindler's List". The epic nine hour documentary "Shoah" interviewed many of the people involved directly in the catastrophe. That fine film "The Truce", based on Auchwitz survivor Primo Levi's powerful book of the same title, dealt with the immediate aftermath. Levi was a man who lived with depression himself, and would have understood Styron's book. Sadly he committed suicide. Roberto Benigni even tried, perhaps rather tastelessly to inject humour into the subject with "Life is Beautiful", a film that has divided opinion. Pakula simply followed Styron's book, and concentrated on the psychologically devastating effects that the holocaust wrought on one victim amongst the millions. The atrocities were not shown in any depth, but implied. Sometimes what is not seen can be just as powerful, and this is the case with "Sophie's Choice". Seen today it still has the power to shock.
In the film, Stingo, a young writer from the South, arrives in Brooklyn in 1947 to commence his literary career. He boards in the same house as the beautiful and mysterious Sophie, and her psychotic boyfriend Nathan. He inexorably falls for the fragile and delicate beauty of Sophie. Her lover Nathan is an impulsive man of manic energy, but also possessed of a great and generous heart. Stingo finds them an irresistibly romantic couple and is drawn into close friendship with them. But slowly, it becomes apparent that Nathan is not what he seems, and the chaos in his mind begins to emanate itself with violent mood swings. He also discovers Sophie was a survivor from Auchwitz and carries dark secrets from her past. The storm clouds begin to gather.
Meryl Streep plays Sophie, in a deservedly oscar winning performance. I had always thought her to be a seriously over rated actress, but that was before I watched this film. American Hollywood actors and actresses are notoriously bad with foreign accents, but this is not something that could be levelled at Streep, who had obviously done her homework. Someone once asked the great golfer Gary Player, "How come you are so lucky". His response was, "The more I practice the luckier I get". Only that sort of dedication on Streep's part, could have delivered such a performance. She is eerily authentic to the extent that even her German was spoken with a distinct Polish accent. Now that is impressive! Kevin Kline is also a revelation, astonishingly in his first screen role, as the psychotic schizophrenic Nathan, who he gives just the right amount of intensity and energy to. He was a perfect physical representation of the character I had read about. As you might expect if you read my reviews, I tend to remember him from the western "Silverado". Peter MacNicol is also very good as the impressionable Stingo, in what was only his second film role after the young lead in "Dragonslayer".
Pakula skilfully directs the complex flashback sequences that slowly unfold Sophie's past, and which helps the narrative to flow seamlessly. The film itself is an emotional maelstrom, which unless you have a heart of stone, will have you reaching for the hankies. The film contains many powerful scenes, none more so than when Nathan toasts the great American writers Thomas Wolfe and Walt Whitman, who gave a "voice to Americans", and then throws his champagne glass into the river from the bridge. A noble moment! But of course the most powerful emotion is that of searing loss, and the tragedy of the holocaust is always at the heart of this story. There is a children's memorial located within the Yad Vashem memorial to the holocaust victims. It contains candles that through a system of prisms are refracted into one and a half million beams of light, representing all the children who perished in the holocaust. A continuous recording plays reciting the names of all those tragic young lives that were extinguished before they began. The tape takes a staggering 18 months to play to the end, before it starts again. I find it utterly repugnant, and almost beyond my understanding, that there are still people out there who deny this great wrong took place. This film is a moving tribute to the holocaust victims. Not only those who died in the camps, but of those survivors who also suffered psychological damage, that scarred them for the rest of their lives.
The DVD contains a few extras, such as a brief summary of director's work, and you can listen to an audio commentary by Pakula, which must have been done some time ago as he died in a car crash in 1998. The DVD also includes an informative little leaflet containing facts about the film. The picture quality is extremely good. Overall this was an immensely satisfying film and a good accompaniment to to Styron's fine book. A deserved five stars.
on 25 March 2010
I first watched this film shortly after it was released. At the time Meryl Streep was a fairly highly regarded new actress, famous mostly for the 'Deer hunter'. It is difficult at around 25 years remove to appreciate the sensation her performance created at the time. I think that this difficulty in part arises from the fact that Streep has become such a house-hold name now,a 'Star', rightly praised for the rigour which she brought to so many subsequent roles ( A friend once jokingly asserted that Streep went out and deliberately contracted syphillis to be more convincing as Karen Blixen in 'Out of Africa').In the light of this there are now identifiable idiosyncracies and Streep 'mannerisms', which can invade the viewers mind when this film is re-visited, or to younger people familiar with Streep films who are seeing this one for the first time. Had she dropped out of sight following this film I'm sure that this would be regarded as one of the most profoundly moving cinematic performances of all time.
Much has been made of her mastering two completely unrelated languages for the role, whilst this is an amazing feat, I think this is also something of a distraction. I'm sure that there are many first rate linguists who can't act for toffee.If the film had been mono-lingual I still think she would have carried it off.
Kevin Klein, another intelligent and talented actor is perfectly cast as the febrile, flawed schizophrenic Nathan, his Errol Flynn profile, making him "fatally glamorous". And the young and callow 'Stingo' is also ably played.
One criticism made at the time was that it boiled the Holocaust down to the experiences of one woman. Another was that Sophie, a woman spiritually destroyed by Fascism, is a Pole. And that this is unfairly juxtaposed with the character of Nathan who, despite his maniacally Quixotic hatred of Nazis, is an American Jew who never himself experienced any of the horrors depicted. The question of the extent of war time Polish anti-Semitism is also touched upon.
Another interesting aspect is that Nathan and Sophie love and play 19th century music constantly- the music of Beethoven and Schumann - Germans. They quote the optimistic,romantic poetry of Dickinson, Whitman, Wolfe and Hart Crane. All their intellectual sensibilites serve to remind us that they were children of the post-enlightenment, a generation whose aspirations for humanity and belief in universal moral progress were shattered by the horrors of the mid-twentieth century.
And Sophies loss, the result of her 'choice', is unbearable. And that one scene, as enacted by Meryl Streep, is one of the most harrowing experiences you will see on film. So unbearable in fact, that at 25 years remove,and now with children of my own, I can not bring myself to watch it.
A further disquieting reflection is that the book, written by the late William Styron, is not completely fictional. He maintained that Sophie (although not with that name) actually existed.
on 30 April 2006
I must admit I'm amazed that Sophie's Choice has been rated so poorly. It's the first film for me that Meryl Streep truly showed what a powerful actress she can be. The story is told by Stingo who is a mostly passive character who befriends a couple, Sophie and Nathan. The film explores obsession and the lasting effects that a trauma as intense as the Holocaust must provoke.
Kevin Kline is also very watchable as a charasmatic but deeply flawed Nathan, but ultimately you are going to remember Meryl Streep as Sophie. The sequence showing her choice, which the title refers to, is I think one of the iconic moments of cinema.
It may not be a fast paced film and in retrospect I can tell that it was adapted from a novel. As a study of consuming obsession, guilt and grief it's subtle, moving and memorable. Well worth your time, but I would it without distractions to fully appreciate it.
on 10 September 2001
Not many movies I've seen could carry away a top rating. Sophie's choice just made it there. Apart from a good story and very good acting, this movie has some fine little details in the editing as well that only caught my eye after repeated viewing. My favorite scene is (of course) where Sophie has her "choice" forced upon her by the SS Doctor played by Karlheinz Hackl. (In his book, William Styron gives him a fictitious name: Dr. Jemand von Niemand, literally translated as: Dr. Someone von Nobody.) The ensuing scene is truly heartrending and must be every mother's worst nightmare...
on 30 September 2013
Set in Brooklyn in 1947, Sophie's Choice is an haunting, deep movie, of three people, whose lives are deeply intertwined, in Brooklyn - 1947:
Stingo (Peter MacNicol): An aspiring young author from the South, who has made his way to Brooklyn to pursue his writing career.
Sophie (Meryl Streep): A Polish war refugee, who has survived Auschwitz, and who's past is one of horrors we can only imagine in our worst nightmares.
Nathan Landau: Sophie's mercurial and volatile lover, who is obsessed (if that is the right word) with hunting for escaped Nazis, and whose moods swing between joy of life and extreme generosity one moment and vicious, black rages the next.
The first half of the movie revolves around the close friendship between Stingo, Nathan and Sophie, as well as the passionate relationship between Nathan and Sophie. The second part takes us to Sophie's nightmarish experiences during the Second World War, and ultimately the heartbreaking scene where a Nazi officer forces her to decide which of her two children will survive and which will be taken off to die in a crematorium.
It is a movie both about the pathos and anxiety of each individual, and of the agony and evil of a world gone mad i.e. Europe during the holocaust, at a time when we are faced with mass terrorism , sympathy for terrorism and a resurgence of anti-semitism and totalitarian ideas.
on 12 May 2015
I cannot write a review that improves on the description of the film on Amazon.co.uk's website. Suffice to say, I was held spellbound and loved it. Top marks go to the novel for creating such a wonderful story, and then the film-makers just added gloss: its brilliantly shot, the acting is first-class, and it's safe on my shelf for another viewing in a few years.
on 16 January 2010
I had seen clips of sophie's choice many times before (where sophie has to choose between her children) and thought I knew what it was about when I bought it but when I actually watched it I thought I must have got the wrong film. I got in to it and it kept my attention but I kept thinking, when is the story gonna kick in, the story I was expecting is in the final 20 minutes of the film(as a flashback) and though it is an important point in the film, this is only half the story which I won't give away on here.
All that said I did really enjoy the film, Meryl Streep was excellent as usual,the dvd was a good price and the picture quality was really good for the age of the film.
on 1 February 2009
I absolutely loved this film when I watched it for the first time and each time I watch it I am still in awe of the talent on the screen. Ms Streep is amazing as the torn concentration camp survivor and delivers THE best performance in her career so far and in my opinion the best performance by any actress of her generation. Kevin Kline and Peter McNicol are just as spell-binding as Meryl Streep and bring in the edge of danger and innocence. It is a beautiful and tragic tale of Sophie's past that is profoundly moving and intelligent. A totally unforgettable and moving film.
Sophie's Choice is a very sad film but one that should be seen by as many people as possible. It approaches the Holocaust obliquely and from the angle of a novel, with all the characterisation and intricacies of plot that that implies - the opposite of a documentary such as Night And Fog, which presents you with the facts in a direct manner. In a sense, the 30 minute film is what is most necessary on the subject, but it may be that for some viewers (myself included) a more personal, fictionalised approach allows an easier access to it by mixing it with other, less painful elements. Here the triangular story set in Brooklyn after the War takes up quite a lot of screen time and engages the emotions and sympathies, while gradually revealing character. The essence of the story is revealed in flashback - and is very well judged so that it shows you the awfulness and the individual tragedy, while not showing so many dreadful scenes that you start to wish you hadn't watched the film. Many of the Brooklyn sequences are very well shot - by legendary cameraman Nestor Almendros - bringing out the expressive qualities of all three characters and framing them very well. This edition is the one to get as it is in the proper ratio (16:9) and not 4:3 as some editions are, going back to VHS, presumably. It makes such a difference to see the images as the director intended, especially with such a distinguished cameraman at the helm, otherwise it seems to be too much in close-up. Meryl Streep gives a classic performance and conveys so many emotional nuances; by the end you feel she has taken us through an extraordinary range (focusing more, but not exclusively, on feelings of suffering) and always judged the intensity of each sequence very well in relation to the whole. Peter MacNicol and Kevin Kline couldn't be better chosen, contrasting well with one another as an innocent and a schizophrenic respectively, yet very convincing in friendship. At this level, it has something of the chemistry of Jules et Jim - there is a lot of warmth in the film, and Meryl Streep looks absolutely beautiful, but of course the dominant note is very bleak with some harrowing moments, as it has to be in the context.