Love is the ultimate freedom.
The prison drama is a genre all its own. Numerous films have been made about the troubles and toils of livin' in the big house: The Great Escape, The Green Mile, Dead Man Walking, Escape From Alcatraz, and The Shawshank Redemption all look at what life is like from the inside out. In 1984 up-and-coming actor Mel Gibson (The Patriot) and Diane Keaton (Annie Hall) starred in Mrs. Soffel, based on the 1901 true story about a warden's wife and her frantic desire for a convicted killer. Mrs. Soffel is now free on DVD from Warner Home Entertainment (originally an MGM film).
Facts of the Case
1901, Pittsburgh: The Biddle brothers, Ed (Gibson) and Jack (Matthew Modine, Full Metal Jacket) have been caught and convicted of murder in the first degree. Languishing in a local prison, the two men are to be hanged for their crimes. Their only hope lies in Kate Soffel (Keaton), the prison warden's sensitive and beautiful wife. At first, she brings the Biddle's Bibles and words of wisdom from God, but soon she finds herself strangely attracted to Ed and his ragingly charismatic personality. Mrs. Soffel also starts to question Ed and Jack's perceived guilt—could it be that these two men are really innocent? Soon love and hope becomes the power that helps them all escape their prisons (both real and emotional), but with the law close behind will these jailbirds make it to freedom?
Remember the movie Dead Man Walking? Remember how taut and well executed (no pun intended) the story was? Susan Sarandon played Sister Helen Prejean and Sean Penn was Matthew Poncelet, a convicted killer sentenced to die for a crime he says he didn't commit. Dead Man Walking was filled with realism, conviction, and drama. During one scene, the prison chaplain says to Sister Prejean that she shouldn't trust Poncelet. "There is no romance here, Sister," he says, "No Jimmy Cagney 'I've been wrongly accused if I only had someone who believed in me' nonsense."
Oh, how I wish that Mrs. Soffel would have taken those words to heart. It doesn't and as such becomes a mundane prison drama that plods on long after the audience has lost interest. Of course, I realize that Mrs. Soffel is based on a true story—but just because something takes inspiration from real life doesn't mean it still should have the audacity to be so blandly boring.
The main trouble spot with Mrs. Soffel is that I never once believed that this woman would give up her life, husband, and children just to free some grimy inmates. Kate Soffel has so much and yet is willing to give it all up just so she can get down and dirty with Ed. Speaking of Ed, why does she believe that he's innocent to begin with? There was never a true moment where I believed he was innocent, so why should she? I guess that's what a good looking set of blue eyes and strong biceps can do to a woman in lust. The plot just kind of goes on and on and on, never doing anything overly interesting or exciting. There are a few nice touches in the movie (I was especially impressed with the production design, sets, and breathtaking cinematography), but overall this is just a flat, boring prison movie. Some pontification about the Bible and the meaning of its passages show up, though they're never really explored. I guess I've seen director Frank Darabont's The Shawshank Redemption (the best prison drama ever made) one too many times—it may have spoiled me for any other prison movie since (well, except for Earnest Goes To Jail, but that's another matter altogether).
Both Mel Gibson and Diane Keaton work fine in their roles, though neither show the real spark of acting genius that has propelled their careers. Gibson looks doughy eyed and gets angry at the drop of a pin, while Keaton seems to be as stoic and cold as a block of Minnesota ice. Matthew Modine has to be one of the least interesting character actors working in Hollywood today. I always enjoy seeing Edward Herrmann (The Lost Boys) up on the screen [Editor's Note: You might remember him better for a long-running series of Dodge car commercials.], and actress Trini Alvarado (The Frighteners) is effectively sappy and cute as Kate's defiant daughter who is determined to marry the man of her dreams (never minding that he looks as if he's a complete and utter ding-dong).
I'm not thick-headed enough to say that Mrs. Soffel will be no one's liking. Maybe there are those out there who will enjoy this movie much more than I did. Either way, I started nodding off around the 40 minute mark—and that's not a good start to any movie.
Mrs. Soffel is presented in 1.85:1 anamorphic widescreen. While I wasn't crazy about the movie, I do think that this transfer is well above average. There are a few instances of grain and dirt, though overall this is a nice looking transfer. Edge enhancement is kept to a minimum, while colors are bright and well saturated. This is by no means a perfect transfer, but it is pleasing to the eye.
Audio is presented in Dolby Stereo Surround as well as Dolby 1.0 Mono in French. The Dolby Surround soundtrack works fine in the confines in the film, though I'd hardly consider it an impressive soundtrack. Since this is a dialogue driven drama, a 5.1 remix wasn't needed. All aspects of the dialogue, effects, and music are clear and distortion free. Also included on this disc are subtitles in English, French, Portuguese, Spanish, Japanese, Chinese, Thai, and Korean.
Extra features on Mrs. Soffel are kept to a bare minimum: all Warner has thrown on this disc are some cast and crew notes and an anamorphic theatrical trailer for the film.
Mrs. Soffel just didn't unlock the key to my heart. While I won't say it's a horrible movie, you're not going to hear me singing its praises either. Warner has done a passable job on this title, though fans of the film will be sorely disappointed at the lack of extra features.
Mrs. Soffel is slapped with a misdemeanor for being a long prison movie that moves at a snail's pace. Case dismissed!
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Scales of Justice
Studio: Warner Bros.
• Theatrical Trailer
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