Paradise Road
Director: Bruce Beresford. Cast: Glenn Close, Pauline Collins, Jennifer Ehle, Frances McDormand, Julianna Margulies, Cate Blanchett, Elizabeth Spriggs. Screeplay: Bruce Beresford.

Photo © 1997 Fox Searchlight Pictures
Paradise Road is one of those films that was probably more compelling to make than it is to watch. Good intentions abound, and the true-life story deserves to be told. In fact, Paradise Road is not so much a failure as it is a disappointment. The film has its moments, but hanging over most of them is the shadow of the deeper, more bracing movie that got away.

Some films are plagued with innumerable endings, la "He isn't really dead!" or "It's time to save the girl!" Paradise Road has the rarer problem of too many beginnings. The first sequence is a swanky military ball at the Allied base in Singapore in 1942. Within minutes, the base is being bombed by the Japanese; we know this because the windows start glowing Movieland shades of violet and orange. The women are sent on a ship to America while their husbands scuttle to the front.

Then the real action begins, as those same Japanese bombardiers attack the boatful of women. This sequence has real energy—plane-to-ship combat is one of the few war-film permutations we haven't seen done to death—but the film hits a culturally uncomfortable sort of cruise control pitting innocent, Western Women against cardboard Pure-Evil Japanese.

Cut to a Sumatran internment camp, where the English, American, and Australian ladies are taken by Japanese troops. The camp is the centerpiece of Paradise Road, and it is here that we (finally!) start to know the characters.

Or sort of. One of the ladies is Adrienne Pargiter (Glenn Close), the highbrow wife of a British commander. Also in tow are Shirley Valentine herself, Pauline Collins, as Margaret, a missionary; Jennifer Ehle, who played Elizabeth Bennet in the BBC Pride & Prejudice, as a captain's childhood sweetheart; and Julianna Margulies, free from her ER scrubs as "American socialite" Topsy Merritt. Most of these actresses acquit themselves well in their tricky, physically demanding roles. They all avoid the temptation to play uplift and nobility ad nauseum, and Close in particular, with her reliably luminous face, manages some stirring moments of strength, courage, and even fatigue. No one in the cast asks for easy audience-sympathy points, remembering to play survivors, not martyrs.

Unfortunately, writer-director Bruce Beresford does not provide these women with many interesting things to say. He inflicts such unreadable lines upon his cast as "I've tried, but I just can't hate them; the worse people behave the sorrier I feel for them." No character ever becomes more specifically delineated than The One With the Dog, The One From ER, or The One Who Is Glenn Close. The Japanese actors are treated even worse. Their lines are few, their subject-verb agreements even fewer, in a needlessly broad stereotype.

"Stereotypical," however, is one word that cannot be applied to the fictional Dr. Verstak, the German Jewish refugee played by Frances McDormand. Verstak is so strange the Coen Brothers wouldn't have thought of her. Within the camp, she extracts the gold teeth from dead women's mouths, selling them to Japanese soldiers for whiskey and medicine. She did not belong in the previous list of characters because she does not belong in the same movie. I am not sure she belongs in any movie.

So what actually happens in Paradise Road? Beresford's lazy framing of his scenes prevents us from really knowing. His film has a nasty strain of Evita Syndrome: namely, the compulsion to shoot fifty similar people doing the same thing at the same time in the same shot. For an extravagant musical whose explicit subject is a life of grandiose but empty visuals, the technique works. Not so in a film about a labor camp. A shot that includes so many actors is necessarily too far away from them to really see what they're doing. We don't see any muscles straining, any perspiration. Surrounded by beautiful ferns and flora, the film could be a postcard slideshow for Sunny Sumatra.

As in Beresford's earlier Driving Miss Daisy, the film's central theme is often compromised by the screenwriter's insistent pluckiness. In one chilling scene, a woman is forced to kneel upright for twenty-four hours, or else impale herself on the spikes set into the ground around her. Australian newcomer Cate Blanchett plays the scene quietly and well, but Beresford undercuts her by making her quip, "Oh, I knew he was bluffing." The camp chuckles. We grumble, or cringe.

The unlikeliest development—but remember, this story is true—involves the spontaneous, illegal formation by the women of a classical vocal orchestra. Which means, yes, scenes of starving women being conducted through Dvorak by The One Who Is Glenn Close. These scenes could have been unrelievedly hokey, and sometimes they come close, but the actors find real poignance in their insistent self-labelling as a "vocal orchestra." They are not "just a choir," or a mere evening's entertainment. They are creating a complex, demanding form of beauty in truly forbidding circumstances, and however improbably, the device brings the film a much-needed and credible aura of decency and human gravity.

Beresford could learn a lot from Dvorak, particularly the concept of "melody." Individual moments, however striking or lovely, need connecting material to form an emotional whole. The film does find admirable success in scenes across a wide range of tones. The triumph of the women's first recital is equally well-staged as, for example, the live burning of an uncooperative laborer. Maybe the tones are too varied, though, and the film should have found one and stuck with it.

Paradise Road deserved a better shot. The efforts of the actresses against a feeble script are heroic, however much the film itself presumes (but lacks) that quality. All of these women deserve more exposure and more interesting work. Stories about women are in such criminally short supply that even a minor hit paves the way for a few more to come. Hopefully, they will not be written or directed by Beresford, whose movies consistently run aground on shoals of emotional dishonesty. I've tried, but I just couldn't like Paradise Road; the harder the actresses worked, the sorrier I felt for them. B–

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