Sophie's Choice; Forty-Eight Hours


Sophie's Choice To anyone who has read William Styron's fine novel Sophie's Choice, the film, which follows the book closely, will contain few surprises. To anyone who has not read the book, the film will be not only a vivid revelation of character but an excursion into recent history that is absorbing, disturbing, even shattering.

Many of the most memorable aspects of the book are happily preserved intact in the film: the highly literate quality of the language; the hopeless passionate love affair between Sophie and the paranoid schizophrenic Nathan; the strains of symphonic music drifting down the stairway in the pink Brooklyn house, followed by either a passionate love scene or a violent quarrel; the scenes of stupefying brutality in the concentration camp; the cruelty and at the same time the stifled humanity of the Nazi commandant (the commandant's little girl, after calling Sophie a stinking Pole, administers first aid when she faints and proudly shows her her scrapbook). Nor is the spatial juxtaposition of the concentration camp, with the emaciated hands stretched out from barred windows, and the luxurious life of the officers and their families in the neighboring compound lost upon the viewer, any more than it was upon the reader.

Grateful as we are to have this book rendered so faithfully in the film (some scenes and a few characters are omitted), there are also disadvantages in filming it with such fidelity. Sophie's revelations about life in Poland (such as her father's true nature and its effect on her) occur bit by bit in the book, giving us one clue at a time as to the real cause of her mental disturbance. In the film this would have required a large number of brief and possibly confusing flashbacks, and so the concentration camp scenes have been presented in one half-hour flashback (filmed in black and white); this device, while cinematically necessary, dilutes the feeling of progressive revelation and dramatic inevitability. Some scenes that were a welcome counterpoint in the book, such as Stingo's attempted sexual encounter with the wealthy protected Jewish girl, are humorless in the film and seem irrelevant. There is a mounting tension in the novel which, together with the author's stylistic intensity makes the book impossible to put down even for a moment, whereas the film, though full of dramatic incident, lacks some of the book's cumulative power. But the culminating scene of mind-blowing horror that lends the book its title is given full play in the film with undiminished impact.

Thanks for this are due not only to the finely wrought script and taut direction of Alan Pakula but to the near-miraculous performance of Meryl Streep, who captures the Polish accent, the nuances of facial expression, and the ambiance of a sensuous, intelligent, deeply disturbed woman in as fine a performance in the role as could be imagined. Kevin Kline as Nathan does a virtuoso performance as the disturbed intellectual, benevolent and manic and crazed with anger by turns; if the characterization seems implausible to some viewers, it is because such persons defy belief even in real life. The comparatively vanilla-flavored character of the author, played by Peter MacNicol, is done as well as could be expected, though he has little to do besides being an onlooker to the tempestuous principals.

But the film belongs to Meryl Streep, in her subtlest and most complex performance to date. Time and again the camera lingers on her face, like a kaleidoscope registering every nuance of emotionality. In the scenes in Brooklyn, her face has an almost luminous radiance, hardly recognizable as belonging to the person in the Polish concentration camp. If the film is not easy to forget, it is largely because of her performance, as well as the rendition of the novel's powerful and tragic story.

Forty-Eight Hours One has come to expect coiled-spring tension from the films of Walter Hill. The Warriors made him famous, and Southern Comfort was a superior followup. Now comes Forty-Eight Hours, a tour de force of mixed merits. Nick Nolte plays an offbeat (would-be?) cop and Eddie Murphy an unwilling sidekick who is pulled out of jail to help Nolte find two multiple killers.

The characterizations develop nicely and sustain some interest, but the plot sags. The outcome is predictable from the start, and as if sensing this, the director has included much comic diversion along the way—so much, in fact, that the tension, along with the plausibility of the story, disappears along the way in deference to the fun and games. The Murphy character is fun without a doubt, but the film in which the characterization occurs turns out to be neither fish, flesh, nor fowl.

John Hospers is the author of Understanding the Arts. He teaches philosophy at the University of Southern California.


Best actress: Meryl Streep, Sophie's Choice
Best actor: Ben Kingsley, Gandhi
Best director: Sidney Lumet, The Verdict