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.