Time for another entry in the 2016 Blind Spot entries, a challenge issued to us bloggers by Ryan @ The Matinee. This month I finally crossed off...
Why did I pick it? Unlike my previous two picks in this year's Blind Spot Series, there was no deep childhood connection to this movie. This one is purely a movie buff kind of flick. It's a movie, I've heard was great and felt it was something I should check out. More specifically, I heard how great Meryl Streep was in it. I'm not one of those who has come to resent Streep and the fact that she seems to get an Oscar nomination simply for appearing in a movie these days. I still appreciate her and while I don't think every performance I've seen of hers is award worthy, more often than not they are. She's an immense talent who makes the films she's in better than they would be if someone else were playing the same role. I truly believe that. Still, I hadn't seen what many have hailed as her very best work. I figured it was high time I did.
There was one other reason I wanted to see this movie. One of my own country's euphemisms, that originated during my lifetime, was a complete mystery to me. From time to time, I'd see or hear about a person in a rough predicament and hear some other person say something along the lines of "You've got yourself a real Sophie's Choice, there." It doesn't take a genius to figure out that it means this person had a tough decision to make, or to surmise that their comment stemmed from this movie. However, I had no idea what choice Sophie had to make. Time to remove that thorn from my paw.
Much to my surprise, the person I'm first introduced to as the film starts is not Streep's Sophie. It's some country bumpkin who calls himself Stingo (Peter MacNicol). He's just moved to New York in hopes of making it big as a novelist. Unable to find an affordable apartment in Manhattan, he treks to Brooklyn and rents a room on the ground level in a multi-family house. He meets his neighbors in the apartment above his when their lover's quarrel comes explode down the stairs. The man is Nathan (Kevin Kline), spitting venom upon his woman Sophie. She's all tears and fears. We immediately make an assumption about their relationship, but shortly find out that it's more complicated that we first suspect. The next morning, everything is hunky dory between Nathan and Sophie. They wake Stingo up early and invite him to spend the day out on the town with them. He accepts and so begins the friendship he forms with them.
In short order, we find out a few important things about our volatile couple. Sophie is a Holocaust survivor. Despite Stingo and our initial assumptions she's Polish, not Jewish. She also credits Nathan with saving her life because she was literally wasting away when he found her, after she had already made it to America, by the way. Nathan is Jewish, but fully American. He spends long hours at work doing research for a pharmaceutical company and is given to fits of jealous rage. Those long hours means Stingo winds up spending lots of time with Sophie and those fits of rage, well, sometimes they're directed at Stingo, sometimes not. The relationship between them all proceeds under these conditions with occasional flashbacks to Sophie's time in a concentration camp in Auschwitz.
The time we spend with our three main characters is compelling theater. We're drawn into it as it develops and morphs. We think we know where it's going and we're not completely wrong. However, we're not completely right and that's the part that keeps us engaged. Nathan's unpredictability also helps in that area. We can never be sure what he's going to do. In our minds, we run through a cycle of potential diagnoses for him. Kevin Kline is just enough over the top in the role to sell it and make it a bit frightening. Our fear is not of him, but for Sophie. He feels like a stark raving mad lunatic that might go upside her head at any given moment. We even feel this way when he's showering her with affection and compliments. All the while we wonder why Sophie won't free herself from him. It's understandable she feels indebted to him, up to a point. It seems to us they passed that point long ago. Here is where Stingo is most useful. He is the conduit for our thoughts as he seems to be having them, too. Every now and again, he'll hint at such with Sophie. MacNicol has a difficult job, stuck between true movie stars like Kline and Streep, but he makes the most of it. He's bland enough to not detract from what either of them are doing, but personable enough that we feel for him. It helps that he's often the only person who makes any sense.
After discussing Kevin Kline and Peter MacNicol, the obvious question is what about Meryl Streep? She's the reason I watched it, right? I can honestly say that I was not disappointed. From a technical standpoint, she nails the Polish accent, as best I can tell, anyway. Emotionally is where she really excels. We simply feel her. She makes us understand that she's a woman who struggles with self-esteem. At the same time, when things are going good she is a person of unbridled passion. She makes both sides of this coin believable. It all stems from something that Steep has lost over the years. Fragility. She has heaps of it, here. None of her recent characters have it. She's still an awesome performer, but she brings such dignity to each role these days that it fosters a sturdiness in the women she's playing. Even at their most vulnerable, we don't get the sense that these women will truly fall apart. We fear Sophie will do just that. In fact, she does this at a number of points. It's a rawness she may no longer possess.
While Streep is truly magnificent as Sophie, it's the story that seals the deal. As further proof that he is mostly a stand-in for us, Stingo is the person to whom Sophie is telling her stories about Auschwitz. Early on, it seems these parts of the film are slowing down the film, making it drag and just padding runtime. However, it's building to something. It's building to the titular choice which will crystallize Sophie as a person for us. When we get there, our empathy is in full bloom as we couldn't imagine having to make such a decision. Yet, once it's demanded of her to make it we instantly put ourselves in her shoes and have no idea what we would do. It's a case where there is no wrong answer, but the bigger certainty is that there is no right answer. Until we get to that point, we like this movie. When we actually get there, the film elevates itself into something of resonance. I now have a point of reference for the term "Sophie's Choice." I love the movie, but hope I never have to make one.
2016 Blind Spot Entries
2015 Blind Spot Entries