That Meryl Streep is a great actress goes without saying, but she didn't reach this ubiquitous status without roles like Zofia "Sophie" Zawistowski in director Alan J. Pakula's Sophie's Choice. The actress adopts a convincing Polish accent to play an American immigrant and Holocaust survivor in the screen adaptation of William Styron's novel. The opening scenes suggest that the title refers to a love triangle between Sophie, her unstable boyfriend Nathan (Kevin Kline) and writer Stingo (Peter MacNicol), but Sophie's burden is far weightier than dividing her affections. Sophie's Choice is seminal Holocaust cinema without prolonged depictions of torture and murder. Instead, the film ruminates on more personal horrors, making it all the more affecting. Sprawling but never dull, Sophie's Choice is expertly acted and memorable.
On his first night at a Brooklyn boarding house, Stingo witnesses a drunken Nathan berating Sophie in the stairwell. Nathan hurls cheap insults at Stingo before huffing off, leaving Stingo to comfort Sophie. The next morning, Nathan is back and at Stingo's window, and invites him to a picnic as an apology for his behavior. The trio becomes great friends, but the first evening's spat is one of many for Nathan and Sophie, who bends over backward to placate Nathan and excuse his irrational behavior. Most of the tension comes from Nathan's long hours at work for a pharmaceutical company. Sophie is lonely in his absence, and Nathan accuses her of stepping out with other men, including Stingo. These roller coaster friendships inhabit much of the film's first half, and, while somewhat monotonous, are expertly depicted by Streep, Kline and MacNicol.
The film switches gears deep into its second hour, and depicts Sophie's time at Auschwitz concentration camp. Absent are the prolonged scenes of mass torture depicted so powerfully in Schindler's List. Sophie's Choice instead focuses on the tragic circumstances surrounding Sophie's internment and her work as a Nazi officer's servant toward the end of the war. Crematoriums, gallows and pits of bodies are only briefly witnessed, but the Holocaust atrocities are no less horrible when depicted through Sophie's eyes. Her story is personal and life altering, and Streep handles this material with the expected nerve and grace. It is this backstory that brings the Brooklyn-set narrative full circle, and Sophie's past life concusses in the stories of Nathan and Stingo.
There is a lot of substantial drama in Sophie's Choice, and Pakula largely avoids a heavy handed, turgid retelling of Styron's novel. His direction is workmanlike, but the director wisely lets his screenplay adaptation of the source do most of the work. He certainly pulls fantastic performances out of his key cast. There are many long, almost uncomfortable takes, and Steep, especially, nails her harrowing monologues. At 150 minutes, Sophie's Choice is long but never boring. There is a lot of tricky material here, and the film handles its tonal shifts and changes of venue nicely. The narrative could have slammed to a halt with the lengthy flashback sequence, but Sophie's Choice actually builds on the simmering drama with these scenes.
Few films have handled gut-punch tragedy, romantic melodrama and intermittent comedy so skillfully, and for that Sophie's Choice is memorable. The themes of universal suffering and redemption are powerful, and the film's portrait of mental illness and depression is convincing. Streep overshadows her male co-stars, both of whom are excellent in their own right, and reminds viewers that her current perch among Hollywood legends is well-earned. The complex narrative earned a few detractors upon the film's release, but Sophie's Choice is largely successful at obtaining its goals. The film is ambitious and difficult but well worth revisiting or viewing for the first time.
The 1.78:1/1080p/AVC-encoded image from Shout! Factory is a marked improvement from the previous DVD release but seems to have been pulled from an older master. There are a number of specks and some dirt on the film, but the image cleans up as the film progresses. Nestor Almendros' cinematography is somewhat warm and dreamy, and the image retains a soft appearance throughout. Some of this is intentional and some seems to be the result of the dated source. Colors are generally well saturated and often quite bold, though I noticed some were a bit overcooked, giving them an unnatural golden appearance. Detail is decent despite the aforementioned softness, and there is some nice texture to be found on fabrics and landscaping. Black levels are decent, with only minor black crush. I noticed minor banding in a few outdoor scenes, but noise reduction is not a problem.
The 2.0 DTS-HD Master Audio mix is certainly serviceable, and dialogue is consistently crisp and clean. Music and effects are surprisingly vibrant despite the lack of dedicated surround support, and all three elements are mixed nicely. English subtitles are available.
PACKAGING AND EXTRAS:
This two-disc set includes the Blu-ray and a DVD copy. The discs are packed in a standard case with two-sided artwork. The Commentary with Alan J. Pakula is ported from previous releases. The director is knowledgeable and engaging and provides an excellent overview of the production and themes. There is a new Roundtable Discussion with Meryl Streep, Kevin Kline and More (45:41/HD), which proves an excellent retrospective for the film. Also included is the film's Theatrical Trailer (2:50/SD).
This is certainly not light viewing, but Sophie's Choice is an affecting, sprawling drama that features superb work from Meryl Streep, Kevin Kline and Peter MacNicol. Director Alan J. Pakula's adaptation of William Styron's novel blends affecting tragedy, romantic melodrama and comedic elements into a cohesive whole. Streep won an Oscar for her performance for good reason, and Sophie's Choice is powerful filmmaking. The new Blu-ray edition from Shout! Factory presents the film in solid form and includes a number of worthwhile extras. Highly Recommended.
William lives in Raleigh, North Carolina, and looks forward to a Friday-afternoon matinee.