Sophie's Choice (United States, 1982)

March 15, 2009
A movie review by James Berardinelli
Sophie's Choice Poster

Spoiler Warning: This review discusses key plot points in detail. Those who have not seen Sophie's Choice and wish to have a "virgin experience" are advised not to read beyond the first paragraph.

Sophie's Choice was the best film released in 1982. The Academy, which failed even to nominate the high-profile movie for the Best Picture Oscar, didn't agree. (The award went to Richard Attenborough's reverential bio-pic, Gandhi.) For her performance, however, Meryl Streep couldn't be overlooked. Although it's false to believe that Sophie's Choice is all Streep, she is without a doubt the most critical component, and her performance came in service of a powerful screenplay under the direction of an accomplished director. Without Streep, Sophie's Choice would have been a very good motion picture. With her, it attains greatness.

Although Sophie's Choice could loosely be classified as a Holocaust film, the "present-day" time period is 1947. Flashbacks during the course of the movie rewind the story to periods before, during, and after the lead character's internment at Auschwitz but, by setting the primary narrative several years after the conclusion of World War II, the picture provides an opportunity to examine how the ripples of Sophie's experiences while imprisoned by the Germans have spread and been amplified throughout her recent life. Many lesser Holocaust movies are concerned only with what happens in the concentration camps; the better ones often reflect on the damage that continues after the liberation.

It's 1947 and aspiring author Stingo (Peter MacNicol) has arrived in Brooklyn to jump-start his writing career. He rents a ground-floor flat; his upstairs neighbors are a flamboyant couple: Sophie Zawistowski (Meryl Streep) and Nathan Landau (Kevin Kline). Sophie is a Catholic Polish concentration camp survivor. Nathan is a Jew who "saved" Sophie after her liberation from Auschwitz and is now obsessed with the Holocaust. Sophie is haunted by ghosts; Nathan is plagued by demons. Sophie's father was in fact one of the loudest anti-Jewish voices in Poland's academia and her tragic interaction with the Nazis forced her to choose which of her two children would be executed. Nathan wrestles with alcohol abuse and bipolar mood swings that create a mercurial and sometimes violent personality. Stingo ends up trapped between them, liking Nathan and loving Sophie, yet increasingly aware that the fast track the couple is on can lead only to a train wreck. By the time he recognizes this, he has passed the point where he can be only a bystander.

Sophie's Choice does not give us Sophie's unhappy story all at once. It reveals elements of her past in small doses, allowing us to get to know her in the "present" (1947, that is) before delving into events that brought her to this place and time. Initially, we see her as a courageous survivor who is in love with and indebted to Nathan, even though he hardly seems to deserve such devotion. One flashback, however, helps us to understand. But there's a dark side to Sophie's history - the father she loved and adored was an ardent anti-Semite, one who delivered a speech about "Poland's Jewish Problem" and agreed with Hitler's Final Solution of extermination. In an act of the bitterest irony, Sophie's father was executed by the Nazis and she ended up in a concentration camp. There, she was forced to surrender her daughter to a crematorium in exchange for her son's life. This act, coupled with an uncertainty about her son's fate, has haunted her and spread a stain of self-loathing on her soul.

Nathan is less complex but no less tragic. He loves Sophie but, like so many men who cannot control their intake of liquor, he is frequently drunk, and his inebriation often leads to bouts of paranoia and violence. Sophie, like many women with poor self-images, forgives him. Alcohol isn't Nathan's only problem; he is mentally unbalanced. At first, his affliction appears to be some kind of bipolar disorder, but Stingo eventually learns it's more serious. Nathan and Sophie live together, but neither truly knows the other. Stingo become privy to the secrets of both and, as a result, is trapped with them until the final act.

By providing one of the all-time great female performances, Meryl Streep earned her Best Actress Oscar. This wasn't a case of the Academy rewarding an actor for past performances (as was the case with Al Pacino). Streep's portrayal - forceful, emotional, and utterly compelling - could not be topped. Both depth and breadth are required and displayed. So much pain is evident in the scene that earns the movie its title that it is almost impossible to endure, so wrenching and convincing is Streep's interpretation of her character. Sophie's Choice isn't the movie upon which Streep's considerable reputation is founded, but it represents one of the cornerstones. It's impossible to watch this film and not absorb the complexity and contradictions of the title character.

This is Kevin Kline's first film and he toils in Streep's shadow. There are times when he's a little over-the-top, but most of Kline's performance rings true, especially once we understand the nature of the forces driving Nathan. Peter MacNicol accomplishes the impressive task of providing an island of calm in a stormy sea. MacNicol leaves the more showy examples of acting to his co-stars and instead underplays the part. Stingo is the observer - not a detached observer, to be sure, but an observer nonetheless - and the performance must reflect that. Stingo is a mirror for both Sophie and Nathan and, as such, his own personality is muted. MacNicol accomplishes this without rending Stingo irrelevant. In the end, we care about him even though the storyis never about him.

There's no getting around the simple fact that Sophie's Choice is a downer, but so are many of the most powerful motion pictures. Perhaps that's because nothing tears at the soul as deeply as guilt, and few things are more devastating than guilt without the possibility of redemption or forgiveness. That's Sophie's situation. She goes on because she must. She goes on because Nathan reached out to grasp her hand when she was drowning. But she cannot forget. Every day she lives, she confronts the terrible decision she made. At the beginning of the film, before the truth is unveiled, we sense that this will not be a tale of salvation. Sophie's story cannot end well but, for her, perhaps any ending is better than a continuation.

Sophie's Choice was arguably the last great film from Alan Pakula, the man behind the camera for The Parallax View and All the President's Men. After this, Pakula turned his considerable talents toward making high profile but unremarkable fare. Sophie's Choice is by far the darkest production upon which Pakula embarked and, in many ways, it is his most memorable. Yes, it's bleak, but there's a kind of sad beauty in the agony and it's hard to imagine a viewer who will not be moved on some level by this story and the way it is told. By the time the movie draws to its conclusion 150 minutes after it started, we have gotten to know the characters and, although the ending fits the personalities of those we have befriended, it is nevertheless a hard blow to absorb, and one that is not easily dismissed by the mere act of walking out of the theater or turning off the DVD player.

Sophie's Choice (United States, 1982)

Director: Alan J. Pakula
Cast: Meryl Streep, Kevin Kline, Peter MacNicol
Screenplay: Alan J. Pakula, based on the novel by William Styron
Cinematography: Nestor Almendros
Music: Marvin Hamlisch
U.S. Distributor: Universal Pictures
Run Time: 2:30
U.S. Release Date: 1982-12-08
MPAA Rating: "R" (Profanity, Violence, Sexual Situations)
Genre: DRAMA
Subtitles: none
Theatrical Aspect Ratio: 1.85:1