AFI Top 100 Ranking: 91
Release: December 8, 1982
Writer: Alan J. Pakula (adaptation), William Styron (novel)
Director: Alan J. Pakula
Star: Meryl Streep, Kevin Kline, Peter MacNicol
Studio: Universal Pictures
Cinematography: Nestor Almendros
Music: Marvin Hamlisch
With apologies to the other depressing films on the AFI Top 100, “Sophie’s Choice” is by far the most miserable and bleak. It tells a sad, sad story in just about the saddest way possible. There’s no hint of redemption or hope to be found anywhere—the filmmakers make sure of this. I’m pretty sure that’s what they were going for, so on those terms the film is a success, but really, the only reason to sit through these two-and-a-half hours is Meryl Streep. Her iconic performance makes the movie necessary viewing, though I doubt many would want to sit through it twice.
The film opens as an idealistic young Southern writer named Stingo (Peter MacNicol) arrives in Brooklyn looking to write the great American novel. He moves into a pink house and becomes fast friends with his upstairs neighbors Nathan (Kevin Kline) and Sophie (Streep). They seem very much in love, but their relationship is bittered by Nathan’s frequent outbursts and abusive behavior. Stingo immediately becomes enamored with Sophie, a Polish immigrant who lost both of her children in German concentration camps during World War II. Things get complicated as secrets are revealed from both of his friends’ lives, and then everything gets very heightened and tragic.
Just who is Stingo? I kept going back to that question repeatedly throughout the film. It’s not that MacNicol gives a bad performance (he is, after all, a very good actor), it’s that the character is written so blandly that we get no insight into who he is. He witnesses conversations between Nathan and Sophie instead of involving himself in the conversation. He’s told horrifyingly tragic things, and yet we never see him react in any way other than widening his eyes. I would have loved to hear his opinion about everything that is going on, especially since screenwriter Alan J. Pakula (also the director) provides us with voiceover from Stingo. We never even get an idea of what his novel is about, other than that it concerns “the South” (that narrows it down). Since he’s the character we first see and it’s his voice narrating the story, one would assume that the film is “about” his journey. Nope. I understand that, in theory, his arc is that he begins with naïve aspirations and becomes slowly jaded by the sad realities around him, but I don’t see that anywhere. Hell, as the film ends, he sees his two best friends (one of them his first lover) dead in an embrace after committing mutual suicide, and he can’t even articulate a thought—he has to read it from a book of poetry.
The film is based on a novel, unread by me, which is heralded as a masterpiece by many. I’m guessing Stingo is the narrator there as well, and this could be the inherent problem. Look at classics like Fitzgerald’s novel “The Great Gatsby” or Berendt’s nonfiction piece “Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil.” Because they are ciphers who record the movements of more memorable characters and situations, the characters of Nick and John work on the page. But the film versions? The characters are ultimately unnecessary and snooze-worthy because film doesn’t need that extra translator. That is true here as well.
But then there’s Meryl.
Pakula seems perfectly happy to do what so many directors have done since this film. He sets the camera up with a slow zoom-in and then jumps out of the way to let her do her thing. Streep is phenomenal, putting so many just-right details into the character and giving Sophie all the layers of complexity the character deserves. She is so good that she manages to land jokes about her character’s accent and shaky English that were so bad they should have never gotten into the script (example: “Is that your Cocksucker?” “I think you mean Seersucker.”). It has to be one of the most difficult characters ever put on film, and Streep simply disappears into her. It’s a “showy” performance, at least in that the character screams and cries, gets her head shaved and has to speak in several languages…but it’s the smaller beats that make you believe in her. Look at Sophie’s eyes every time Nathan walks through the door…always excited to see her love but also just a little horrified that he might be brutal to her again. Let’s not kid ourselves, it’s because of her that the film has achieved “classic” status and is on this list.
It’s not that the rest of the film is “bad,” it’s just not on the same level as her performance (and how many other Streep vehicles could be summed up in the same way?). There are good moments throughout, as when Sophie is caught trying to steal a radio by the young daughter of a Nazi general. The girl talks about turning Sophie in, but the truth is that she just wants someone to talk to. The reveal of the house Sophie will work in while at the Concentration Camps is well-done—Pakula’s camera swoops up from the death, destruction and mud behind her, over a barbed-wire covered wall…and into the equivalent of paradise.
There’s one genuine moment of happiness, when the three friends are playing around together at Coney Island by going on rides together, and even that is undercut by voiceover reminding us that Sophie and Nathan are doomed. Ultimately, I think the sadness becomes too oppressive and I just had to stop investing myself. We get a very long flashback to Sophie’s time in the Concentration Camp, then get more abuse from Nathan, then learn Nathan is a paranoid schizophrenic who has been lying to everyone in his life for years, then Nathan threatens to kill Sophie and Stingo with a gun, then Sophie relates to us what the “choice” of the title really means, then there’s the mutual suicide…it’s as if Pakula is repeatedly punching the viewer in the face and demanding that we “cry, damn it, cry!” Somewhere in there it stopped feeling real and started feeling like manipulation, and once “Sophie’s Choice” crosses that line, everything except Streep’s performance no longer works.
My Score (out of 5): ***