Sophie's Choice (1982) from Johnny Web (Uncle Scoopy; Greg Wroblewski)

Both the script and the pictorialization of this film are highly literary. If you prefer a less structured, less formal approach to film, then you may find Sophie's Choice too conventionalized to deliver the emotional impact it hopes to have.

It is also possible to argue that the film somewhat trivializes the holocaust by using it to add emotional impact to a writer's coming-of-age story.

My mind tells me that. My heart tells me that this is a terrific film that plays the right chords.


In truth, I don't like the trivialization argument. The holocaust was either the main story or the backdrop story for just about everyone who lived in Western society at a certain time. The people who knew it only as a background story should not have to ignore the impact on their lives simply because they didn't suffer enough.

William Styron, author of the eponymous book upon which the film is based, came to Brooklyn from the south in 1947, and in that famous melting pot met Sophie, a beautiful and aristocratic Polish woman who seemed to carry deep emotional scars from her past life and her present. He didn't write about her then. In fact, he set her aside for a quarter of a century, but her story remained inside of him until he felt that he had to tell it in the seventies. Shortly thereafter, her story, his acclaimed book, became this movie, as Styron himself explains in the documentary on the DVD. The character of Stingo, a southern writer who moved to Brooklyn in 1947, is Styron with a different name. There isn't even a thin disguise. The occasional narrative voice-over, as delivered by an older man looking back at his youth, was written by Styron especially for the film.

When Stingo first meets Sophie, he witnesses her verbal abuse by her boyfriend Nathan, and sees the concentration camp tattoo on one arm and the evidence of attempted suicide on the other. Despite the obvious emotional or even physical danger of a close friendship with them, Stingo has to get to know Sophie and the brilliant Nathan. As it turns out, there are no calm moments for Nathan, and every moment Stingo spends with this couple is charged with electricity as Nathan rides the extreme highs and lows of his manic depressive behavior, filled with praise, then suspicion and contempt.

As Nathan's highs become higher and lows become lower, Stingo gradually unravels the story of Nathan and Sophie, how they met and became a couple. As he digs into their stories, Stingo finds that the deeper he digs, the more lies he finds. Sophie's holocaust story is torn apart, layer by layer, until the truth emerges from beneath the self-serving version she started with. Nathan's career as a biologist turns out to be a scam, albeit a remarkbly credible conceit from his brilliant, deranged mind.

Stingo eventually takes Sophie with him out of Brooklyn, traveling south away from the increasingly dangerous Nathan, but something inside of her is compelled to return to Nathan, despite Stingo's tender love. The ultimate reason for her self-destructive behavior is the movie's final surprise, and the explanation for the title as well.

I wrote a couple of days ago about movies that fix on good people doing bad things during extreme circumstances, then finding it impossible to forgive themselves. The American Civil War, involving brutality against neighbors and family, and set against a philosophical backdrop of human beings as property, was the 19th century crisis that precipitated that precise dramatic conflict in The Outlaw Josey Wales, Beloved, Ride With the Devil, and other thoughtful films. The 20th century equivalent is WW2, which involving planned genocide, a death toll at an unimaginable level, and the callous use of innocents for slaughter and medical experimentation. During the war, Sophie was forced to make a choice by the Nazis, and her reaction to the situation was something for which she could never forgive herself, and formed an essential component of the psyche that drove her back to the certain destruction of her relationship with Nathan.

It has become fashionable in the past fifteen years or so to talk about "closure". I guess this had a root in legitimate psychotherapy, but as used in the mass culture, it seems to be the latest psycho-babble used to justify doing exactly what we want to do. People in Texas actually justify the death penalty in this language. Given the chance, do we kill the man who killed our dad? Yes, we must, in order to achieve "closure". Years ago, we used to call it "revenge". If I recall correctly, people didn't seem to think it was such a good thing back then. This is true of many things from my youth. Once we had "jungles", and they were dark, evil places filled with cannibals, predatory animals, and snakes. Now the same places are called "rainforests", and they are sunny, happy places which represent the best hope of our fragile planetary ecology. Once we had "revenge", and it contradicted the teachings of Jesus and Buddha. Now it is "closure", and we need it to be better people, or something.

My memory may be failing me, and there is no way to verify the facts because my youth happened before mankind's creation of a written language, but I think we did have "closure" back in those days.

We called it "death".

The grim reality is that things rarely come to closure without death. Sometimes even death doesn't help. The holocaust and the great wars of the 20th century continue to echo through the existing structure of the world, even as the remaining number of direct participants continues to dwindle. The memories may fade, but there is no closure for the families which had branches permanently pruned from the family tree, for the countries that went from prosperous fin de siecle exhuberance to minor status, for the groups that came close to extermination (like European Judaism), or for the societies which lost virtually all their healthy adult males (like Russia). The psychological changes imposed by those circumstances will echo for generations to come, if not forever, even though prosperity is returning and the genetic balance of males has been restored.

DVD info from Amazon.

  • Widescreen letterboxed, 1.85:1

  • A recently filmed 50 minute documentary on the making of the film- including interviews with the stars and Willima Styron. This is almost as good as the movie. Streep's voice broke with emotion, as did some of the others.

  • full-length commentary

So it was with Sophie, that there could be no closure from the effects of the war on her personal psychology. The immediate pain disappeared and her health returned, but she continued to bear the psychological scars just below the conscious surface, and her assuredly self-destructive return to Nathan was a kind of self-punishment for something which she could never forgive herself for.

I think you will find Sophie's story powerful, and the performances of Meryl Streep and Kevin Kline to be among the best ever committed to celluloid. (Streep speaks three languages, and her English with a Polish accent is syllable-perfect). I actually read somewhere that a critic felt Kline's performance was undisciplined. Hmmmm .... he's playing a guy with a 200 IQ who's alternately filled with praise and love, then contempt and despair, how much could he downplay it? It's not like he could pull a Costner and mumble his way through it. He was both charismatic and dangerous, as he should have been.

A grand bravo from me, and a standing ovation for this film, for the music, for the performers, for the bonus documentary on the DVD, and for director Alan Pakula. Bravissimo.

The Critics Vote

  • Meryl Streep received most major acting awards in 1982. The film was not nominated for an Oscar in a year with a particularly outstanding field.

The People Vote ...

  • With their votes ... IMDB summary: IMDb voters score it 7.5/10, Apollo users a very impressive 92/100.
IMDb guideline: 7.5 usually indicates a level of excellence, about like three and a half stars from the critics. 6.0 usually indicates lukewarm watchability, about like two and a half stars from the critics. The fives are generally not worthwhile unless they are really your kind of material, about like two stars from the critics. Films under five are generally awful even if you like that kind of film, equivalent to about one and a half stars from the critics or less, depending on just how far below five the rating is.

My own guideline: A means the movie is so good it will appeal to you even if you hate the genre. B means the movie is not good enough to win you over if you hate the genre, but is good enough to do so if you have an open mind about this type of film. C means it will only appeal to genre addicts, and has no crossover appeal. D means you'll hate it even if you like the genre. E means that you'll hate it even if you love the genre. F means that the film is not only unappealing across-the-board, but technically inept as well.

Based on this description, this film is a B. I can't say an A because the film is self-consciously literary, with certain shots repeated at different points in the film, for example, to symbolize the passage of psychlogical "chapters". I like this a lot. Ii think it elevates the film to cinematic literature, but clearly some of you will find this tiresome and too contrived. So it goes. If I voted with my heart alone, it would be an A.

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