Sophie’s Choice (1982): directed and written by Alan J. Pakula
The debate has dated back to Plato, to what extent does having a lofty theme as the subject of your artwork qualify it as being good art? In other words, is “bad” art justified by examining an important subject? And, then, to what extent do I critique the film on its narratives machinations, most of them lifted from the novel? It’s a quandary a place myself in by thinking too much. I wrote a lead, I wrote another lead, I wrote two varying opening paragraphs, deleted both and started again. Thus was the quandary that arose from my attempt to review Pakula’s 1982 film. And it’s odd that I should find myself thinking so much about (reviewing) this film, of all films. Because despite being a film that covers two and a half hours Sophie’s Choice is not one with a dense narrative strand. At the very least, the story – the “main story” – is incredibly basic.
Enter Sophie and Nathan….
(NOTE: I suspect that even those who have not seen Sophie’s Choice have already had the specificities of that choice spoiled for them. And, in assessing the film a by-the-way at the very least seems essential. Thus, spoilers after the jump…)
The couple live in the upstairs and are involved in a torrid love affair, they fight violently, they make up passionately and their fervour for live presents Stingo with just the sort of life through which he can participate in vicariously. Of course the already unsettling relationship the two have is revealed to be made from even more dire issues. Like Nathan’s schizophrenia manifested in his violent outbursts and paranoia. And, Sophie, darling Sophie and her dilemma of being separated from her children and being placed in a concentration camp; and then the fateful act of having to choose which one lives.
Pakula adapted the novel for the screen (his first screenplay, on his own) and ignoring the arguments for and against faithful adaptations of literature to the screen the script suffers from its seeming inability to decide which story it wants to place more emphasis on. It’s not so much that the story of an infatuated “writer” and the machinations he falls into in navigating his feelings towards a traumatised woman don’t make for good cinema. It’s simply that as a protagonist (de facto or no) Stingo materialises in such a wholly ineffectual manner that although his purpose becomes relegated to acting as a receptacle for our feelings towards Sophie it becomes frustrating to experience. And the ineffectuality of his character spills over to the other two leads. So enamoured is the text, and thus the film (and how could it not be when it derives its title from it) with the decision at the root Pakula his thriller-esque ways directs the film as if the entire thing si about THAT moment. And it is, but it shouldn’t be. And, so, the choice emerges as the best orchestrated scene of the film but only because everything around it is not given as much credence. But, it’s ironic because on one hand it seems enamoured with that and conversely seems unwilling to dispense the complete narrative to THAT story. Which is one in a series of frustrations.
The film closes with a recitation of Emily Dickinson’s poem “Ample Make This Bed” as Stingo observes the couple for the final time. I suspect we should observe and think how beautiful and poetic and tragic, but Sophie’s Choice doesn’t earn any true emotional reaction from me that the poem seems to suggest. True, Streep is effective as the eponymous Sophie but I am not as enamoured with her here as Stingo, the film or history is. For example, it’s not my favourite performance of the year, muchless my favourite Oscar winning performance from Streep, and thus hardly a contender for “best performance of all time” in my eyes. What she is here is flawlessly in control of her faculties as a performer and effective as needs me throughout, and especially superlative in the climatic scene. But, a good performance from her (and what I consider to be an equally good, if less measured performance Kline) does not justify the tedium which accompanies the film.