No 145 - Sophie's Choice
Director - Alan J Pakula
I went into this film mildly hesitant. Although I didn't know anything about the film, I did have a feeling that I'd spoken to somebody about the book before and therefore had an idea as to what the titular choice was.
It has to be said that a film in which a prisoner in a concentration camp has to decide who can live and who can die did not sound like the most fun way to spend a Friday afternoon.
However, the film started and all my fears were washed away by two magical words. Kevin Kline. I love Kevin Kline, there is something about his presence that just makes me smile. I think it is also linked to the large number of (quite bad) films I've seen him in. I really liked In and Out... I even thought Kevin Kline was quite passable in the crap that is Wild Wild West (Jim West. Desperado. Rough rider. No you don't want nada).
So when I see Kevin Kline I think of the charming witty man who appeared in De-Lovely, who has acted in Shakespeare and who voiced one half of one of the greatest animated double acts ever. In this film he plays Nathan. The violent, passionate, mood swinging, bat shit insane boyfriend of Sophie - and whilst I'm quite happy to believe his moments of joyful abandon, it takes me a while to see him as threatening.
However, I'm ahead of myself already - let us begin with what the film is about.
The film follows a promising author named Stingo as he travels up from the deep South and meets his neighbours Nathan and Sophie.
The first thing that drew my attention was the casting of Peter MacNicol as the role of Stingo. This isn't necessarily odd, I mean he has been in nigh on everything. Including many of my favourite films. However he always plays weird roles, oddballs, the slightly sleazy. I suppose this is the first role I've seen him in where he is taken as a serious sexual figure. Which is weird. However, all I've spoken about so far is the unexpected casting which really is the least important part of the whole process because, although I was surprised to see those actors playing those roles, once the film begins the relationships are perfect.
Peter MacNicol is perfect as the over ambitious, massively horny but equally naive writer who looks to his neighbours with respect, adoration and envy. Likewise Kevin Kline is a whirling dervish of destruction, stealing every scene he is in with his unpredictable and utterly ridiculous hysteria, flitting from anger to pure joy before collapsing into a pile and crying.
Throughout all of this he shows the most complete and utter adoration to Sophie (when he isn't screaming at her and accusing her of all sorts) and is unable to keep his hands off of her. He is a clear example of an all encompassing massive possessive love.
Which leads me to Sophie. Played, amazingly, by Meryl Streep (another person who I don't think I've seen as a young woman before). Her character is stunning, as fragile and ethereal as her porcelain white skin suggests. She contains an inner strength that is evident in all their fun adventures spent as a threesome but also a brittle delicate side which is permanently in the foreground due to her halting and broken English. It makes every line seem beautiful, poetic and tragic regardless of how mundane it all is.
It is certainly the best performance I have ever seen from Meryl Streep, but what is really impressive is how she changes the focus around. For the majority of the film, certainly the first 90 minutes, she is essentially a background character. She is always there, and she is an important part of the story, but that is because she is an important part of Nathan's story. Nathan, however, is the force behind the first part. His mood swings dictate what the group are doing each day (be it a fun and exotic adventure in 20s finery (because even the 40s had retro fans) or hiding in their respective rooms from a gun wielding screaming Nathan) or the slow discovery that perhaps Nathan isn't the well respected biologist he claims to be. Perhaps he is a paranoid schizophrenic who is trying to hide the point from the woman he loves, in order to save face.
The idea of hiding from your past is probably the key aspect to the film, it is what Nathan and Sophie have in common (though they don't know this as they're hiding their past from each other). We are introduced to the concept through Nathan's illness but when he goes AWOL we are left with only Sophie and Stingo.
Finally, Sophie comes into the foreground and begins to tell the story of what happened to her before she moved to America. This story is told in two parts, because even in her grand confession she doesn't want to face up to her darkest secret. The titular choice.
The story cuts from the moonlit window in which Sophie is talking (and which frames perfect the ethereal grace, fragility and beauty that Meryl Streep portrays in Sophie's character) to the concentration camp of Auschwitz and we hear the beginning of her tale here. How she is separated from her children, how one is killed and one is sent to the Kindercamp, how she becomes a secretary for the Commandant and of all the horrible things she has to go through.
Whilst this film doesn't linger or focus on the concentration camp for long (Sophie is soon in the house of the Commandant), it is impossible to see those signs without being shocked. The fact that people willingly treated other people so horrifically is an alien concept. It is too horrific for me to take it in. It creates a sense of detachment from myself, as the viewer, and those scenes because I can't believe that people could have acted in such a way. It is just so horrible. Impossibly horrible.
I'm glad that you're given the majority of the film to prepare for these scenes because they're so overwhelming. It is made all the more worse when we finally see the story of the titular choice. The final flashback.
As I said at the beginning, this is a film where a lady in a concentration camp has to decide who can live and who can die. The gut wrenching tragedy of that scene as she is forced to decide is Streep's high point. After the subtle delicate nature of Sophie in 1947 and her subdued broken English, to see her break down in passionate pleading fluent German is so so utterly tragic. It is an amazing scene and shows a choice that is horrific to live with. You can see why Sophie has run from this. Why she is so passionately in love with Nathan. Not only does he truly truly adore Sophie, but his unpredictable nature means she never has time to think about her past.
The characters of Nathan and Sophie are ultimately doomed figures running from an unhappy past. Stingo is just there to be the witness to their own self destruction. Both figures are so unhappy with their past and are so intent on keeping it secret that they'll never be happy. It is only natural for the film to end with both Sophie and Nathan wrapped in each other's arms after overdosing on cyanide.
Lover's suicide is the only obvious final point to a relationship that passionate and destructive.