Paradise Road (United States/United Kingdom/Australia, 1997)

A movie review by James Berardinelli
With a mostly female cast and a poetic title, it might be easy to assume that Paradise Road is a 1997 version of Mike Newell's effervescent Enchanted April. However, apart from those stated similarities, there's little to connect the two films. Enchanted April brought the audience on a vacation along with a group of women. Paradise Road takes us to a World War II concentration camp for Dutch and English-speaking women.

Most concentration camp stories are set in World War II's European theater, and deal with Hitler's attempted genocide of the Jewish race. Paradise Road shifts the focus to the lesser- known, but no less inhumane, conditions in the Pacific. Based on the memoirs of survivors, this movie peels away one more layer of the atrocities associated with the second World War. Here, however, it's the Japanese, not the Nazis, who are the enemy. And the means that the prisoners devise to lift their spirits are, to say the least, unique. Yet, even though Paradise Road is ultimately about the triumph over adversity, the script never forgets that for everyone who overcomes seemingly-impossible obstacles, there are many who stumble along the way, never to rise again. Paradise Road offers balance by not forgetting these victims.

The film opens in February of 1942 on a night of dining and dancing at Singapore's Raffles Hotel. It's a gala ball for soldiers stationed in the Pacific and their wives (or girlfriends). The party breaks up when it's announced that the Japanese advance has pushed the Allies back and the city is about to fall. While the men return to their units, the women evacuate, cramming aboard the Prince Albert for the boat trip back to Australia. They are a mixed bunch of Australians, English, and Americans, and petty quarrels break out in the close quarters. But these differences are all forgotten when Japanese planes attack and sink the ship. The waterlogged and weary survivors come ashore on the Japanese-occupied island of Sumatra, where they are rounded up and thrown into a concentration camp. There, over the course of the next three and one-half years, they fight to survive and not lose hope. To this end, they form a "vocal orchestra" -- a chorus that astounds audiences of fellow prisoners by performing hummed renditions of the work of Mozart, Dvorak, and Holst.

The exceptionally strong cast showcases American, British, and Australian actresses, all of whom show an astonishing willingness to appear in physically unflattering circumstances (no makeup, hair and skin caked with drying mud). The conductor of the orchestra, Adrienne Pargiter, is played with grit and zeal by Glenn Close, and represents her best screen work in years. Pauline Collins (Shirley Valentine) is Margaret Drummond, a missionary who copies the orchestra's sheet music from memory. Australian unknown Cate Blanchett essays Susan Macarthy, a timid nurse who finds her voice (in more ways than one) while in the camp. Jennifer Ehle (Elizabeth Bennett in the recent BBC/A&E adaptation of Pride and Prejudice), with her expressive eyes, is Rosemary Leighton-Jones, a beautiful young woman who dreams of being reunited with her true love. Frances McDormand, sporting an absurdly distracting accent, is the camp doctor. And Elizabeth Spriggs (Sense and Sensibility) portrays an old woman who cares more about her dog than herself.

Paradise Road is less a tearjerker than an honest examination of the bonds that are formed during extreme situations. Although there are some heart-wrenching moments, and several scenes of potentially-disturbing violence, the film never descends to the level of cheap melodrama. Instead, it opts for something deeper and more meaningful by allowing us to follow a group of well-rounded characters on a journey with a strong spiritual component. Paradise Road not only pays tribute to the human will to live, but it is a testament to music's lasting power to heal and uplift.

Ultimately, Paradise Road isn't as deeply sad or depressing as a Holocaust film, for, although several characters do not survive the movie, the goal of the Japanese is punishment and humiliation, not genocide. And, while one of Paradise Road's themes is the barbarity of war, it manages to present its case without demonizing the Japanese (indeed, it goes to great pains to paint a few of them as sympathetic). Instead, the film succeeds by humanizing the kinds of survivors who are often pictured as wretched, faceless victims.

Paradise Road owes its existence to writer/director Bruce Beresford, one of the most inconsistent film makers working today. Beresford's resume is all over the place, containing such highly-acclaimed features as Tender Mercies and Driving Miss Daisy and such ruthlessly-panned entries as Her Alibi and A Good Man in Africa. With Paradise Road, Beresford is once again at the pinnacle of his ability, and, with the help of a courageous and superlative cast, he has fashioned a powerful coda to the story of the Belalau concentration camp's vocal orchestra.

Paradise Road (United States/United Kingdom/Australia, 1997)

Director: Bruce Beresford
Cast: Glenn Close, Cate Blanchett, Jennifer Ehle, Frances McDormand, Pauline Collins
Screenplay: Bruce Beresford
Cinematography: Peter James
Music: Ross Edwards
U.S. Distributor: Fox Searchlight
Run Time: 1:55
U.S. Release Date: 1997-04-11
MPAA Rating: "R" (Violence, Nudity)
Subtitles: none
Theatrical Aspect Ratio: 2.35:1