Sophie's Choice
Director: Alan J. Pakula. Cast: Meryl Streep, Peter MacNicol, Kevin Kline, Rita Karin, Stephen D. Newman, GŁnther Maria Halmer, Melanie Pianka. Screenplay: Alan J. Pakula (based on the novel by William Styron).

Sophie's Choice, Alan J. Pakula's adaptation of the William Styron bestseller, shows considerable hubris in reducing an epic tragedy to a false and dishonest melodrama. That gesture already risks an extreme understatement of the horrors that comprised the Holocaust of World War II, an event that Sophie's Choice takes care to demonstrate was a nightmare afflicting several people besides the Jews. Such a distinction may register with the viewer as anything from a laudable historicism to a myopic and unnecessary splitting of hairs.

Whatever the case, Sophie's Choice exhibits a far graver callousness in the way it incorporates one woman's narrative as a survivor of the Holocaust into a larger, crushingly banal story of a young, Southern writer's coming of age in the big city of New York. I do not wish to argue that the Holocaust only belongs in a story if it occupies the center of the author or filmmaker's attention, but its particular mode of appropriation in Sophie's Choice—to lend emotion, depth, and undeserved importance to a shallow story about uninflected characters—trivializes the whole epoch into a lazy writer's tool for obtaining a vise-grip on the audience's sympathy. Like Bent, Martin Sherman's 1979 play that last year became a motion picture, Sophie's Choice does not deserve the attention or empathy to which it lays claim by gesturing vaguely to such a horrendous, tragic event.

A baby-faced Peter MacNicol, later a co-star of TV's Chicago Hope, stars in Sophie's Choice as Stingo, a young Virginian who has moved into a New York City boardinghouse in 1947 in search of the privacy and inspiration he needs to produce the Great American Novel he believes exists inside him. Shortly after arriving in New York, Stingo makes the acquaintance of his upstairs neighbors, Nathan Landau (Kevin Kline), a biological researcher, and his lover, Sophie Zawistowska (Meryl Streep), a recent immigrant to the States and a survivor of Auschwitz.

In fact, Stingo meets the couple during one of Nathan's violent lashings-out against Sophie, which plays out on the main staircase of the apartment. Registering the serial number tattooed in Sophie's forearm and the slash scars on her wrists, Stingo realizes instantly that this woman has known extreme pain in the past; moreover, if Nathan is the raging bull that he seemed on the stairs, Sophie has not found the happiness Stingo assumes she sought as an arrivée in America. His fascination with her appears to contain at least some sexual component, but mostly he views Sophie as a more general exotic, a woman unlike any he has known and—here his writerly inclinations shine through—one capable of teaching him much about loss, pain, and the other moods he believes might lend substance to his semi-autobiographical memoir of growing up in the South.

Stingo's own exoticization of Sophie—the ingenuous way in which he views her, at least at first, less as a human being and more as a source of literary material—follows so closely the pattern of Pakula's own dependence on the Sophie character to lend dramatic heft to his picture, one almost wonders if the symmetery is intentional. In fact, much suggests that Pakula is aware of Sophie's structural purpose in the work, and that he knowingly deploys her flashbacks and sorrowful presence to expose the extent of Stingo's naïveté, the comparatively miniscule context he has for understanding human regret and sadness. Whether or not Pakula knows what he's doing, however, does not excuse the device, for Sophie's Choice is first and foremost Stingo's story with Sophie cunningly provided as emotional counterpoint.

Streep is a marvel here, poignant and economical, though her astounding facility with Sophie's many languages and perpetually haunted aura occasionally work against her and come across as a bit too formal, too studied. (I would have handed her 1982 Best Actress Oscar to Jessica Lange for Frances.) Nonetheless, she does earnest and occasionally heart-wrenching work during Sophie's flashbacks of her time in Auschwitz, including her servitude in a German Admiral's house and her unwilling recruitment into covert resistance efforts. The honesty and compassion of her playing makes the shoehorning of Sophie between two such barren, hackneyed storylines—Stingo's literary emergence and Nathan's increasingly apparent madness—seem all the more regrettable.

Pakula, who perpetrated what may very possibly be the least visually inspired movie of the 1990s in The Pelican Brief, is similarly uninterested in shot composition or directorial point of view in this project, which maintains throughout the august, inflated feel of a self-proclaimed Event Movie, a picture that forsakes discernible feeling in the interest of its own unimpeachable credentials as art. Such tendencies mar most of the aspects of the filmmaking, from Kevin Kline's frequently undisciplined performance to the fulsome Pat Conroy-ness of Stingo's voice-over narration. Marvin Hamlisch contributes a moving score, but like Streep's performance, it is too often submerged in the grayness of its surroundings to evoke as much feeling as it could.

I am not sure whether Pakula and/or Styron (admitting that I have not read the novel) were not sufficiently confident in the power of Sophie's story to let it stand independently, or not confident enough in Stingo's narrative to offer it up free of such extensive subplots. The disparity between the two tales is most apparent by the end, when Sophie's most painful admission is juxtaposed against the bottoming out of MacNicol's character arc; Pakula even designs the script so that a romantic encounter follows upon Sophie's confession, so that Stingo may describe her as the "goddess" of his "lustfulness." No question this boy doesn't understand much about what Sophie tells him; I wish I could state with any certainty that the filmmakers do, either. Grade: D+

Academy Award Nominations and Winners:
Best Actress: Meryl Streep
Best Adapted Screenplay: Alan J. Pakula
Best Cinematography: Néstor Almendros
Best Costume Design: Albert Wolsky
Best Original Score: Marvin Hamlisch

Golden Globe Nominations and Winners:
Best Picture (Drama)
Best Actress (Drama): Meryl Streep
New Star of the Year (Male): Kevin Kline

Other Awards:
New York Film Critics Circle: Best Actress (Streep); Best Cinematography
Los Angeles Film Critics Association: Best Actress (Streep)
National Society of Film Critics: Best Actress (Streep)
Boston Society of Film Critics: Best Actress (Streep)
National Board of Review: Best Actress (Streep)

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