Director: Alan J. Pakula
Starring: Meryl Streep, Kevin Kline, Peter MacNicol
Meryl Streep. The name just exudes excellence, doesn’t it? She now has 16 Oscar nominations under her belt, though it’s been 27 years since she actually won. That win came for Sophie’s Choice and however you feel about some of the performances for which she’s been nominated, you’d have a hard time making a case against that one. It’s a great performance and a great film.
Adapted from the novel by William Styron, Sophie’s Choice is constructed to tell its story via two narrators. The first is Stingo (Peter MacNicol), the exterior narrator who many years after the fact relates to us the story of how he came to know Sophie (Meryl Streep) and Nathan (Kevin Kline). The interior narrator is Sophie, who tells Stingo about her complicated and horrific past. They meet a few years after the close of World War II, when Stingo comes to New York in order to write his novel and moves into a rooming house where Sophie and Nathan occupy the upstairs rooms. He is immediately fascinated by them, by their obvious dysfunction (the first time he encounters them they’re having a knockdown, drag out fight) and their sad, peculiar glamour. Nathan in particular is like a character from an F. Scott Fitzgerald novel, armed with a terrible, cutting wit, a keen intelligence and demons hidden close to the surface. Sometimes he is friendliness personified, other times he is a loose cannon who fires at will on both Sophie and Stingo.
In the midst of Nathan’s tumultuous moods Sophie and Stingo grow closer. He falls deeply in love with her but her ties to Nathan are too tight and her history is far too complicated for Stingo to ever be able to handle. He knows from the start that she spent time in a concentration camp, not for being Jewish but for being Polish and, he’s told, because her father and husband vocally opposed the Nazis. He learns later that this is a lie, that her father was actually a proud anti-Semite and supporter of the Nazis who was killed despite his views for being a member of the Polish intelligentsia. He also learns the story’s most famous plot point, that on her arrival at the camp Sophie was forced to choose between her son and daughter, condemning one immediately to death.
The title is something of a misnomer in that it is not just one choice that defines Sophie but many. Obviously there is the choice between her children from which psychologically and emotionally she never recovers. There is also the choice she makes in how she deals with her father’s legacy during and after the war. After Stingo discovers the truth Sophie admits to him that far from admiring her father, she despised him and his ideas. Nevertheless, once she is in the camp she attempts to use his legacy as leverage to get released, pleading her case to the Commandant and claiming to agree with Nazi policies towards the Jews. She chooses to set aside her morality in a desperate attempt at self-preservation, just as before going to the camp she chooses not to help the resistance fighters who ask for her help, just as she chooses to attempt to smuggle food to her sick mother – the crime that results in her and her children being sent to the camp in the first place. Finally, there is also the choice she makes to stay with Nathan despite the fact that he is on an obvious and quick path to destruction.
Streep’s performance as Sophie is a thing of carefully crafted and executed beauty. She is someone who has endured much and, in certain ways, is very detached. The person she is in New York is a creation, a person she has invented in order to distance herself from the pain of her past – it’s an understandable impulse but it also makes her hard to pin down. Our ideas about her change with each revelation and her story changes so much we have to wonder how much is true and what elements have been tweaked to preserve some shred of the image she wants to project. There is a sense about her that she has emotionally checked out of life and is just waiting for her body to follow suit, which can’t happen as long as Nathan is there and needs her. He is such a fragile character but also so vibrant, the sun around which the other characters orbit. Kline plays the role perfectly, giving Nathan enough humanity and charm that you can understand why it is that the people in his life continue to come back even after he blows up at them, picking away at them as brutally as he can. As the wide-eyed but quickly maturing Stingo, MacNicol also turns in a strong performance that helps keep the story grounded and on track. The film is really an actors’ showcase and the three main actors complement each other well. The other elements of the film are also strong, allowing it to maintain the narrative power that it would have had when it was first released and remain an excellent piece of work.