Judge Clark Douglas once won an Oscar (the Grouch lookalike contest).
Between the innocent, the romantic, the sensual and the unthinkable. There are still some things we have yet to imagine.
"Don't you see? We are dying. I longed desperately to escape, to pack my bags and flee, but I did not."
Facts of the Case
Stingo (Peter MacNicol, Battleship) is a southern writer who has just moved to Brooklyn to work on his debut novel. While there, he befriends Sophie (Meryl Streep, The Deer Hunter), a Polish immigrant who also happens to be a concentration camp survivor. Sophie is currently in a relationship with a charismatic-yet-unstable American named Nathan (Kevin Kline, A Fish Called Wanda), whose obsession with the Holocaust may or may not be directly related to his obsession with Sophie. Over time, Sophie reveals the details of her troubled past to Stingo, including a dark secret which she has kept hidden for many years.
When someone mentions the film adaptation of William Styron's Sophie's Choice, odds are you immediately think of the same scene I'm thinking of. Yes, you know the one I'm talking about. The one featuring that haunting flashback sequence and that unbearably powerful Meryl Streep monologue. The one which gives the movie its title. The one which proved so instantly iconic that the term "Sophie's choice" became a pop culture catchphrase (which many of us may or may not have used jokingly when making a much more casual decision). Looking back, it's perhaps easy enough to misremember Sophie's Choice as a typical piece of Oscar bait; a Holocaust drama with a simple, devastating premise. Actually watching the film, however, we are reminded that Sophie's Choice is a tonally diverse, complicated, nuanced film which covers a great deal of territory over the course of its 150-minute running time. It's because the film does such a superb job of detailing the lives of Sophie, Stingo and Nathan that it ultimately achieves the power it does during that famous scene.
This is one of those uncommon literary adaptations which actually feels like a visual novel of sorts; its languorous pacing, attention to detail and nonlinear structure increasingly adding to the feeling that we're seeing a book come to life. Sophie and Nathan are damaged, complicated characters locked into a relationship which is simultaneously toxic and comforting for both of them. Sophie is good-hearted and kind, but seemingly incapable of confronting the reality of her past. Nathan is brilliant and insightful, but prone to angry outbursts and extreme jealousy. That leaves Stingo as the audience surrogate, but unlike most characters of this sort, he gets a real personality and plays a genuinely crucial role in the story. Just because we're seeing a story through a particular character's eyes doesn't mean that character has to be a dull blank slate, and Sophie's Choice is wise enough to recognize that.
Director Alan J. Pakula had originally intended the title role for Liv Ullmann (and William Styron had imagined that Ursula Andress would be a good fit for the role when he wrote the novel), but Streep was desperate to play the part, reportedly getting down on her hands and knees and literally begging Pakula for the role. Her persistence was rewarded with one of the great roles of her career (which is saying something considering the roles she's played). Streep has always had a knack for disappearing into the characters she plays, but she's almost frighteningly convincing as the troubled immigrant. Kevin Kline's performance is dynamic and explosive; a star-making turn which surely would have been the high point of most films. Here, he's merely another virtue playing second fiddle to Streep's stunning performance.
Truthfully, Pakula's direction is pretty workmanlike. Save for persuasive atmosphere he provides to both the concentration camp sequences and the New York scenes, he mostly opts for letting the script do the heavy lifting (though he surely deserves a great deal of credit for drawing such strong performances out of his actors). It's his writing which really impresses; his ability to cut out sizable chunks of the source material without compromising its integrity (yes, the book's bleak ending has been left mostly unaltered). It stands next to All the President's Men as one of the great achievements of the writer/director's career. The flick has held up quite well over the years, and remains a vital, gripping experience.
Sophie's Choice (Blu-ray) has received a middling transfer which doesn't quite do the imagery justice. Yes, the cinematography is intentionally soft, but that doesn't quite cover the general dinginess of the flick or the oddly askew flesh tones present throughout. Detail is fairly strong and colors have a lot of pop, but the film tends to look a bit weathered. The DTS HD 2.0 Master Audio mix is fine, delivering Marvin Hamlisch's somber score and the dialogue with clarity. It's not a particularly busy track, but it gets the job done. Supplements include a 45-minute discussion of the film with Streep, Kline, the widows of Pakula and Styron, plus a couple of Pakula's close friends/collaborators, an audio commentary with Pakula (recorded some time ago, obviously) and a trailer.
Though this Blu-ray release might be a little underwhelming, Sophie's Choice is a classic well worth revisiting. It's arguably Meryl Streep's finest hour on the big screen, and delivers a powerful story likely to stick with you for a long time.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: Shout! Factory
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