Reel Matt

This blog started as my movie marathon — watching a movie a day for a whole year — and has continued as a place for me to write reviews about movies, TV, and various other items.

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Sophie's Choice

Film #329

THE PLOT

Sophie is the survivor of Nazi concentration camps, who has found a reason to live in Nathan, a sparkling if unsteady American Jew obsessed with the Holocaust. They befriend Stingo, the movie’s narrator, a young American writer new to New York City. But the happiness of Sophie and Nathan is endangered by her ghosts and his obsessions.

Year 1, Day 330

BEFORE: No, I’m still not doing chicken dances today. Instead I’m trudging along with another oldie, this time with Sophie’s Choice. I remembering hearing about the premise at some point during high school and I instantly wanted to watch the film. How can anyone make the choice Sophie is forced to make? Meryl Streep delivers her first Best Actress winning performance (her first Oscar was for Best Supporting Actress three years earlier for Kramer vs. Kramer).

AFTER: Sophie’s Choice is filled with brilliant acting and an incredible story, but it is far from being a masterpiece of cinema. Timing and pacing are very important to this film but they are poorly handled and that makes for a diminished connection with the character’s and their actions.

Sophie (Meryl Streep) is a Polish immigrant who survived the concentration camps at Auschwitz. The film shows her and Nathan (Kevin Kline), two lovers living in New York City, and their new friend and neighbor Stingo (Peter MacNicol) living their daily lives. We see peace and happiness along with the turmoil that ensues due to Nathan’s sporadic outbursts. Very little of the film actually takes place during World War II and the scene where we see Sophie forced to make her choice is both very brief and happens at the very end of the film. While I am disappointed with the fact that we didn’t see more, that’s not the reason I find the film to be poorly paced. Having that scene at the end, instead of a more constant presence throughout, isn’t the problem. It’s that despite a good one and a half to two hours of build-up to this scene, you still aren’t that emotionally attached to the characters, Sophie in particular. The acting is beyond amazing. Meryl Streep and Kevin Kline in particular (Peter MacNicol not so much) give fantastic performances. Often with well-known actors, I associate their character with their own name and personality. Here, I don’t see Meryl Streep, I just see Sophie. Armed with her Polish accent and an emotional range that is much more than a teaspoon I see someone who doesn’t exist as a real person. But even with ample time and opportunity, it doesn’t feel like these characters go anywhere; there’s little to no change from beginning to end.

Yes, the scene where Sophie makes the choice is still extremely powerful. The difficulty of the situation is crystal clear and the pain is evident. But, as hard as this is to say, it seems inconsequential in the big picture. Contrast this with a scene from another Holocaust film, Schindler’s List. When Oskar Schindler says at the end, “I could have got more out,” you can see and feel the importance and gravity of it. The rest of the film leads up to this point and things are developing that slowly connect you with the characters and their mission. In Sophie’s Choice you don’t get any of that. There’s just an emotional scene at the end without the proper buildup beforehand. Obviously, this is based off a book so there may be restrictions in place due to what the source material is like, but even if the film is a direct adaptation of the novel (which, stop me if you’ve heard this before, but I haven’t read it) they still could have implemented it better. One of the biggest problems of execution is it’s jumpy nature. The film seems to take place over the course of a few months or years but you don’t get a good sense of time elapsing. It all feels as though it’s a matter of days even though objectively (through dialogue and exposition) we know it’s longer.

Ultimately, I’m a bit disappoint in the film. Sophie’s Choice still has some good parts to it, primarily the acting and the premise, but the execution drastically hurts the pacing and structure of the film. You can see a lot of potential in this film but it’s lost because you don’t form connections with these characters. The development and growth just isn’t there for you to latch on to. I’d still recommend you give it a chance at some point, but it’s not good enough that you should rush out to find a copy.

RATING: 3 out of 5