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Sophie's Choice

movie reviewmovie reviewmovie review out of 4 Movie Review: Sophie's Choice

Starring: Meryl Streep, Kevin Kline
Director: Alan J. Pakula
Rated: R
RunTime: 157 Minutes
Release Date: December 1982
Genres: Classic, Drama

*Also starring: Peter MacNicol, Rita Karin, Stephen D. Newman, Josh Mostel

Review by Dragan Antulov
3 stars out of 4

Bitter experience often taught us that Hollywood stardom and great acting doesn't have to go hand in hand. Bitter experience also taught us that Academy Awards often end in the wrong hands. However, one of the rare instances when Hollywood star indeed was the great actor and when the Academy Award was truly deserved happened in 1983. In that year Meryl Streep received her "Oscar" for her heart- wrenching role in SOPHIE'S CHOICE, 1982 drama directed by Alan J. Pakula.

The plot of this film is based on the best-seller novel by Joseph Styrone and begins in 1947 when young and aspiring Southern writer nicknamed "Stingo" (played by Peter MacNicol) comes to New York in order to begin his literary career. He finds an apartment in Brooklyn where he meets neighbours - a couple of two fascinating individuals in romantic relationship. One is Nathan (played by Kevin Kline), Jewish biologist prone to violent mood swings; another is his girlfriend Sophie Zatkowska (played by Meryl Streep), Polish immigrant and Auschwitz survivor. As he befriends them and begins chronicling their stormy relationship, Stingo becomes fascinated with Sophie's life story and slowly begins unravelling well-hidden secrets about her traumatic past, including terrible choice she had to make. Stingo gradually starts falling in love with Sophie, but the tragedies of the past will begin to reflect in the tragedies of the present.

SOPHIE'S CHOICE is a film that gives a rather thankless choice to any reviewer who tries to rate it. On one hand we have a single performance which is as close to perfection as any actor or actress had done in the history of the seventh art. On the other hand, if we rate a film as a whole, we might do injustice to the said performance. Simply, Meryl Streep's role in this film is so overwhelming that she outshines everything else and makes the whole film crumbling under such weight. Based solely on Streep's role, SOPHIE'S CHOICE is a masterpiece - rarely we have an opportunity to watch an actress which is ready to employ every last bit of her talent to give the detailed, total and moving portrayal of multidimensional and complex character which we see in different incarnations through different time periods. Streep's efforts in this film can never be praised enough - she doesn't just changes her physical appearances from young Polish girl, pathetic concentration camp prisoner, mortally ill immigrant or seemingly healthy and glamorous woman at the end; she does everything in her power to make those character transformations as accurate and believable as possible. This is most notable in the way she excels in skills beyond the grasp of most of her American colleagues. While the average Hollywood actor or actress can't master any accent other than Californian, Meryl Streep here cruises through the segments that require her character to speak in Polish, German and broken English. She masters those lines and those languages flawlessly, never allowing us to imagine that the actress hasn't grown up in Poland or Germany. After this marvellous display of talent, it is quite understandable why Meryl Streep earns "Oscar" nominations almost every year.

First casualties of Meryl Streep's triumph were the roles of her two partners. In some other circumstances, Kevin Kline's film acting debut in the role of Nathan could have been seen as a superb display of talent - especially the easiness in which Kline manages to swing between various emotional states. In the context of this film, this role looks over the top, in the same way character of Nathan is less interesting than character of Sophie. Kevin Kline's performance would also seem less effective to those who had encountered this actor in his latter, more comedic roles, like A FISH CALLED WANDA. Meryl Streep does disservice to Peter MacNicol too; this actor does a very fine job in playing young and innocent intellectual, and uses a more sublime technique to switch his character between expressions of awe, lust, fear and confusion; yet his character seems somewhat unworthy of the story that is most effective as one-character study. His role also suffers from director's decision to split his role between on-screen character played by MacNicol, and narrator with the more mature and suggestive voice of Josef Sommer.

Strength of Meryl Streep's performance creates another, more serious problem for SOPHIE'S CHOICE. Nobody could accuse Pakula of creating a bad film, since he covered all the bases - plot develops nicely, multiple flashbacks explain a lot about characters, and, finally, excellent photography by Nestor Almendros uses two different sets of film in order to guide viewers through different time periods. But whenever SOPHIE'S CHOICE drifts away from Sophie and her story, it becomes a less of masterpiece it was supposed to be and the viewer begins to find its shortcomings. First of all, the film is slightly overlong, with some episodes that serve no purposes and that could have been left on the cutting room floor (and that includes even the conversation between Sophie and Hoess' daughter). Character of Nathan is, despite Kline's good performance, underwritten and his big secret gets revealed too late in the film; the authors did the bad job when they tried to draw parallels between Sophie's and Nathan's shortcomings.

However, SOPHIE'S CHOICE deserves to be recommended not solely due to Meryl Streep's role. A great part of it deals with World War Two and its most macabre yet most fascinating element - Nazi death camps. Unlike many other Hollywood films, SOPHIE'S CHOICE doesn't try to simplify this grim and depressing subject and put it solely in the context of relations between Germany and Jews. SOPHIE'S CHOICE shows that the nations other than Germany had their own forms of anti-Semitism with genocidal potential (which is later hinted in Spielberg's SCHINDLER'S LIST). The movie also shows that the people other than Jews also became victims of Nazi genocidal policies. Therefore, even those who might not get affected by the strength of Meryl Streep's performance should watch this film, at least in order to grasp tragedy that happened to Europe in the middle of 20th Century.

Copyright 2001 Dragan Antulov

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