It might be 40 years late, but I’ll be catching up on all the Oscar nominees and winners I have missed from the year 1982 through the month of July
Despite Meryl Streep’s iconic Oscar-winning performance, Alan J. Pakula’s Sophie’s Choice is too focused on the uninteresting parts of this story. Despite an utterly captivating performance, Streep can only do so much to help the film.
Streep stars as Sophie Zawistowska, a Polish immigrant living in Brooklyn in 1947. Sophie lives with her emotionally unstable lover Nathan (Kevin Kline) in a rent house. Young naive writer Stingo (Peter MacNicol) moves in an quickly befriends the pair
Narrated by Stingo, the film tracks the three as they navigate their lives. Stingo wants to be a writer and is attempting to write his first novel. Nathan’s mood swings and anger alienate him from the pair, while Sophie reveals the horrors she was forced to go through in order to survive concentration camps in World War II.
The film’s title seems to allude to the inevitable choice Sophie must make between Stingo and Nathan. When the “actual” choice gets made, all the love and longing feels so pointless, you wonder what it’s all be for.
While the bulk of the film focuses on the Stingo-Nathan-Sophie triangle, every flashback to Sophie’s time in Poland is utterly captivating. Much like the realization of the “choice,” everything that occurs in Brooklyn feels so slight compared to what Sophie had to endure. The film falls under the same problem as Pearl Harbor. With World War II being an active part of the narrative, there is no reason to care about the love story.
Streep is nothing less than extraordinary. Despite playing a Polish immigrant, he accent is impeccable and her demeanor is consistent. Her face and eyes wear her experiences where you can feel the pain seeping through towards the camera. Each one of her series of stories transports the audience and changes the entire rhythm and pacing of the film. Streep blends accented English with Polish and German in her flashback scenes and makes it feel like a natural part of her characterization. A truly masterful performance.
Kline is a charismatic live-wire. While Stingo is all aww-shucks meekness, Kline is all brash bravado and unpredictability. It’s clear that Nathan is unstable, but when he is kind or silly, he becomes immediately more likeable than Stingo. It’s a tightrope performance that Kline nails. I don’t know if MacNicol is bad or if Stingo is just a negative of a presence. His love for Sophie is little more than infatuation and lust. He doesn’t seem to grow as a character and he is a painfully dull lead character. The film may act like Sophie is the draw, but Stingo gets the bulk of the screentime.
Pakula’s direction matches the film. In Brooklyn, it is uninteresting and bland. In Poland, the technical aspects and camera work is much more dynamic. It’s like the film is perfectly aware that everything happening in Brooklyn is just in the way to what we really care about seeing.
While I was pleasantly surprised by Kline’s performance, the only reason to watch this film is for Streep’s career-defining work. It’s first-class acting in a second-class film.
Next week: Every delightful actor does nothing but delightful work in Blake Edwards’ Victor/Victoria
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