“Sophie’s Choice” Movie Review

And we all thought that there was no way Julie Andrews in Mary Poppins could be matched in performance. Released in the fall of 1982, this drama received both critical and commercial success just in time for awards season. After leaving his small-town home in the South, aspiring novelist Stingo moves into a shared boarding house in Brooklyn in 1947. Soon after settling in, he meets his upstairs neighbors, Polish immigrant Sophie Zawistowski and pharmaceutical worker Nathan Landau. While they immediately become the best of friends, Sophie and Stingo must brave Nathan’s emotionally tempestuous behavior and violent mood swings. It’s only a matter of time before Sophie trusts Stingo enough to share her harrowing experiences in a Nazi concentration camp during World War II. As the synopsis suggests, Stingo acts as our primary point of view for much of the runtime. A young man in his 20’s, his inexperience in the large city of New York, and his desire to understand human love allows the audience to relate to him in his struggles. When he discovers new locations across the city, it’s as if we’re walking in his shoes, seeing what he sees, learning what he learns. The city is a massively scary place for someone of small town background like Stingo, almost as if it wants to suck you in and never let you leave. The desired effect worked well for the most part. That being said, it felt as though the scope was very restricted. Most of the turbulent scenes are told inside of the characters’ boarding house, only one floor apart from each other. In that, it sometimes felt more like a stage play on Broadway, with nondescript locations and a plot that mostly develops from various characters exchanging bits of dialogue. One notable exception to this occurs early on in the picture when the trio goes to Coney Island for a day. While they move through a variety of different rides and attractions, the whole sequence plays like a silent film with color without any verbal or background noise. We only see these three people have the best day of their life, backed by Marvin Hamlisch’s beautiful and subtle score. This is undeniably creative, but it sometimes felt unappealing. However, Alan Pakula makes up for this in the latter half of Sophie’s Choice, when we start getting glimpses and flashbacks of Sophie’s life in Auschwitz. Many colors are desaturated or muted, similar in style to Steven Spielberg’s later Holocaust film Schindler’s List. It is clear that as the situation becomes bleaker, the colors fade even more. To add further authenticity, a rather large portion of the film is spoken in either Polish or German, a choice that throws me into the admittedly conventional drama. This is contrasted by scenes of Sophie explaining her every action in the present day to Stingo. These cutaways to the modern setting are filmed in a first-person perspective, giving the impression that we are listening to her talk to us in person. This allows the audience to better relate to her and her story; especially in the final act when everything comes to a gut-wrenching head. All three leads are terrific in their respective roles. Peter MacNicol, in his second movie ever, does convincing work as Stingo. Right at home with his Texan accent, his naive demeanor and great ambitions make him a man of great compassion. While he may be better known for comedies such as A Fish Called Wanda, Kevin Kline is fantastic as Nathan Landau. An unpredictable paranoid schizophrenic, some scenes were just uncomfortable to watch. But he’s still an indelible figure to look up to and find some warmth in, like when he first met Sophie and they bonded over reading Emily Dickinson poems. Or later, when he declares in a touching monolog that Stingo is destined to become one of the great American writers, alongside Whitman and Wolfe. But the true standout, as you may already know, is Meryl Streep, who completely deserved her Academy Award for Best Actress. It really can’t be overstated how incredible she is. Aside from her near-perfect Polish accent, she manages to hit almost every single emotion imaginable. She bounces between joy, anger, confusion, and unspeakable sadness with ease. If anyone else was cast as the titular character, this performance (as well as the movie) would probably be forgettable. Aside from being an experiment in acting and emotions, there is a point and meaningful purpose in the story of Sophie’s Choice. Through the eyes of Stingo, we are subject to the capacity one man (or woman) has for both love and suffering. When Sophie first arrives at the concentration camp, she is forced by an SS Officer to choose: will her son or her daughter go to the gas chambers? This is nothing easy for anyone. While she has endured so much pain, she still finds the ability to love other people. No matter how many times Nathan hits her, they keep reconciling and rekindling their relationship. There are brief moments of humor, like Sophie incorrectly mistaking Stingo’s seersuckers for “cocksuckers.” But aside from small moments like that, this film is not uplifting, or even very enjoyable to watch. By the time the credits start to roll, you will be left either speechless in your seat or in ugly tears of sadness. Maybe even both. If you aren’t brought to either one of those states, then it’s questionable if you’re truly human. Although it may be too upsetting for some and a little too conventional for its own good, Sophie’s Choice is a fantastically written and beautifully poignant drama about the distinction between love and suffering. It features one of the greatest performances ever put to film and an ending that will haunt viewers for many weeks after.

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