Wednesday, September 17, 2014

AFI Top 100: #91 "Sophie's Choice"

Kline, Streep, & MacNicol in Sophie's Choice (1982)

Talk about a movie with a reputation. For the #91 selection on AFI's Top 100 list, there was a lot of hesitation from my group of friends about sitting down for an evening of Sophie's Choice. Even I, having seen it many years ago, pressed play with a bit of a sigh, readying myself for a very emotional ride.

I'm going to say first and foremost that the reputation surrounding the movie, citing it as one of the saddest films of all time, is completely unjustified. It certainly is emotional, with elements of undeniable tragedy. But none of it is unbearable. In fact, I believe that pigeonhole has kept many audiences in this generation from discovering this romantic and beautiful movie.

Sophie's Choice is told from the perspective of our honest and naive narrator, Stingo (Peter MacNicol), a transplant from the cordial South trying to struggle his way into becoming a great writer in Brooklyn. The year is 1947, and he finds himself renting a room at a Jewish boarding housethis is where he meets lovers Nathan (Kevin Kline) and Sophie (Meryl Streep). Their romance is heated, passionate, and volatile, and Stingo becomes entangled in a love and friendship for both of them.

The film is, essentially, two different stories. The present, which follows our threesome in the ups and downs of Nathan's love for Sophie and Stingo's youthful and simple perspective of that love; and the past—specifically, the secrets of Sophie's internment during the Holocaust at Auschwitz. Both Sophie and Nathan have built their lives on lies and a deep-seeded sadness, which contributes to the star-crossed power of their romance.

I could spend this entire review talking about the dynamics between these three characters. But I risk spoiling what truly makes this film great. The screenplay and the actors who speak these words are simply brilliant (no hyperbole). The characters are multifaceted and complicated, and they speak poetically about one another, building on top of the ever-present melodrama. It's impossible not to be transfixed.

Streep won her second Academy Award for playing Sophie (the Polish accent, along with the fluent Polish and German, didn't hurt), and it shocks me that her fellow actors weren't even nominated. Kevin Kline is insane perfection as Nathan, and his chemistry with Sophie is so intoxicating, you have no trouble understanding how she and Stingo can be so enamored with him and forget how horribly he treats them both. Vice versa, it's just as easy to understand the allure of the mystery that is Sophie.

By subtly incorporating the universal theme of suffering, and focusing on the Holocaust atrocities committed not only against Jews, but the Polish people, we are left with a character so tragically damaged and justifiably tormented by the choices she's made.

The film is based on the 1979 book of the same name by William Styron, and the pacing of the script indicates that they really fought to include as much from the novel as possible. This creates a fragmenting that hurts the film, contributing to the idea that it is trying to watch. At times, it's slow, taking a long time to "get to the point," and because the reveals are so intricate and weighty, the build up is laborious.

I go back and forth between looking at this as a problem. The impact of the film's finale is undeniable, and even with the consistent [melo]drama, the entire movie is very sexy with plenty of comedy. Does the heavy outweigh the light? Yes. Does it make it hard to watch? I don't think so. If anything, everyone should see Sophie's Choice to witness three incredible actors giving some of the best performances of their lives. For that reason alone, it deserves a slot on AFI's list.

Rating:  ★★★½ / 5 stars

[Watch the Trailer] | [Read More AFI Top 100 Reviews]

Check back next week for #90 on the list, Swing Time — or better yet, have your own viewing party and watch along with us!

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