Title: Sophie’s Choice
Country: USA, UK
Language: English, Polish, German, French, Russian
Genre: Drama, Romance
Director/Writer: Alan J. Pakula
based on the novel by William Styron
Music: Marvin Hamlisch
Cinematography: Néstor Almendros
Stephen D. Newman
Günther Maria Halmer
Hailed as the best female performance of all-time, Meryl Streep’s harrowing incarnation of a Polish holocaust survivor Sophie Zawistowski is truly deserving all the laurels. Written and directed by Alan J. Pakula, the Oscar-nominated director of ALL THE PRESIDENT’S MEN (1976), SOPHIE’S CHOICE starts off as a sparkling JULES AND JIM (1962) frolic, but soon Sophie’s past experience has been squeezed out of her buried memory, thanks to the amorous but volatile relationship with a passionate Jew Nathan Landu (Kline in his film debut).
However, the film is told from a third person’s angle, Stingo (MacNicol), whose voiceover is throughout the entire film, is a young writer comes to Brooklyn pursuing a career in 1947, and Sophie and Nathan are living upstairs in their boarding house. His very first encounter with them is being a self-conscious witness of a vehement squabble between them, on the staircase, Nathan blusters with medical terms to a whimpering Sophie, condemns their doomed relationship, and insolently taunts Stingo for his southern upbringing. But the next day, Nathan comes to make up with him and it turns out he is a great guy when he is not angry, the three of them chum around and Stingo begin to know more about them.
Stingo has an incurable crush on Sophie, who is a decade older than him, and vastly admires Nathan’s enthusiastic passion for love, literature and music, he doesn’t mind to be the third wheel around them, the three form a perfect rapport, except for one thing, Nathan’s fitful outburst of rage, jealousy and spite, which the film throws repeatedly to takes the stage, to the convenience of allowing a thoughtful and tender Stingo to comfort Sophie subsequently, then Sophie will confide to him her heart-wrenching life story before arriving in USA. And each time, we get closer to the truth, but like Sophie says to Stingo, even if you know the truth, it doesn’t mean you can understand it better.
Sophie is not a Jew, she was sent to the concentration camp simply because she tried to smuggle some ham for her ill mother, and more shockingly her father is indeed an avid anti-Semite, who is killed by Nazi because of his nationality, they don’t care about his ideology, that is the paradox of Sophie’s story, but trenchantly lays bare the barbarian kernel of war: no matter how noble (or in the case of WWII, cockamamie) its cause is, war will most probably turn into a genocide under the volition of those few who seize the power, individualism doesn’t stand a chance to secure safety and the civilised is usually the first to die.
The character, who speaks Polish, Germany, French and English with a Polish accent in the film, is no doubt Streep’s most demanding role and she pours so much empathy and commiseration into her flawless rendition, never over-the-top and never a dull moment with her presence. Sophie is a victim, period, she shouldn’t be persecuted for being the survivor while millions are murdered (she was doing all she could to stay alive in the camp); or accountable for her father’s radical thoughts, (in her own defence) she has never sided with her father; as for the choice she made between her son and daughter, it is utterly unethical, the cruelest thing ever could happen to a mother. Sophie is innocent, that’s why the finale comes off quite uncomfortable, there is no need for her to be martyrised? She has no will to live, probably, but she is not a sinner, very possibly time will heal it, yet why oh why she cannot leave that deadly poisonous man? She had a better choice and forfeited, she doesn’t want to promise something she cannot promise, right, but a self-destructive submission is not the best thing her story can offer.
Nathan, in Stingo’s words, is utterly fatally glamorous, and fittingly, the film reveals the secret of his side, not so plausible (one cannot figure what is the deal behind the day when he claims his biological research has made a Nobel-worthy progress) but Kevin Kline is marvellously bipolar switching from a forcible menace to an amiable life-force, to and fro.
Another bone to pick with this otherwise superb war-panning essay, is its clichéd exigency to fulfill a male’s ultimate fantasy: “you’re a great lover, Stingo!”, after Sophie finally sleeps with him, this is what a man really wants to hear, even though she leaves without saying goodbye, and at least five times with lines like “you are so beautiful” are referred to Sophie from different characters, as a constantly vexing reminder of the shallow canon from a man’s perspective, beauty is a woman’s original sin, even in Auschwitz, next time, we might wage a war to exterminate all the unsightly ones, that definitely would make the world a more eye-catching place!