Sophie’s Choice (1982)
Written & Directed by Alan J. Pakula
It’s been 38 years, but Streep is still associated with this film. It makes sense because it was the first film to win Streep the Best Actress Academy Award. It wasn’t her first award, that as Best Supporting Actress for Kramer vs. Kramer. But this was different, Streep was the first name in the opening credits the dramatic weight of the picture rests on her shoulders. She’s not the entire pool of talent in the movie, but the key moments often hinge on her ability to convey the depth of emotion and torment Sophie is feeling.
The film is told from the perspective of Stingo (Peter MacNicol), a young Southern man who moves to Brooklyn, where he plans to write his great novel. His boarding house is also occupied by Nathan (Kevin Kline), a volatile and charismatic man, and his lover Sophie (Streep), a Polish immigrant who survived Auschwitz. Stingo befriends the couple and comes to cherish their relationship. Nathan’s mood swings prove troubling, and Stingo believes Sophie should leave, but she feels tied to Nathan for some unexplained reason. Through flashbacks, we learn about how their relationship began and about Sophie’s journey from Europe and the Nazi death camps to America.
Streep is at the height of her acting powers. She is completely absorbed in the role externally through the multiple physical transformations we see from the camps to her new life. Streep’s accent is pitch-perfect, and she plays numerous scenes speaking German. Even more important is the emotional depth and strength she brings to Sophie. When Stingo realizes there’s more to Sophie’s story than she is letting on, Streep can show the vulnerable strength of shutting him down, making it clear she has boundaries that no person is allowed to cross.
The film is structured so that we get fragments of Sophie, a little at a time, leading up to the darkest secret she has kept hidden from everyone she knows. By the end, we know Sophie as a fully realized human being. She is deeply flawed, lying about aspects of her upbringing, but she reminds us that Holocaust survivors, the survivors of any trauma, are not perfect saints. They regain their humanity after living in total squalor, and part of restoring that humanity is to lie, get angry at well-meaning people, to be perfectly imperfect. The titular choice is one that we realize none of us could have made, and we cannot stand in judgment of Sophie in the slightest.
The supporting cast is composed of two of the best actors to come out of the 1980s, Kevin Kline and Peter MacNicol. MacNicol is most familiar from Ghostbusters 2 and Ally McBeal. I particularly love his recurring role on Veep as the nastiest political consultant Jeff Kane. In Sophie’s Choice, he can play a young and fragile man, unsure if he can pursue his dreams and make something of himself. In Nathan and Sophie, he finds life, a push through the struggle of life. As Stingo learns the truth, we see him go through stages of grief, by the end, he’s shocked back into reality and forever changed.
Kevin Kline is one of the most underrated actors of our time. I will always love his absolutely insane performance in A Fish Called Wanda but was completely unaware he was in this movie. Kline still possesses the frantic energy of his award-winning comedic role but transforms it into aching pathos and a character that can be genuinely terrifying in moments. Nathan is such a profoundly complicated character, and it makes sense that he and Sophie would gravitate towards each other, two broken ships in the night.
I have never been a big fan of director Alan J. Pakula, and I think his contributions are what I liked least about Sophie’s Choice. Save for a few moments, the cinematography is bland and uninteresting. If not for the pristine performances from his actors, this could have ended up like any other mild melodrama. The film stands as a testament to the skill of Streep.