Paradise Road opens inside a posh British club in Singapore, February 1942. Beautiful young women dance with their uniformed sweethearts, while Colonel Blimp types and their wives cluck with amusement at the idea of the short, nearsighted Japanese getting the upper hand against the mighty Brits. Then the bombs start falling, and we're in the crammed streets in the midst of a frantic evacuation of women and children. All this before the end of the opening titles.
We've been shown this sort of fattening-and-slaughter of British Empire pretensions many times before in films, but rarely so efficiently, and rarely with as little piety on the part of the filmmakers. When the evacuating Brits steal the club's champagne, writer-director Bruce Beresford isn't making a snide point about the venality beneath colonial manners. He's simply establishing a directorial strategy that serves him well throughout--as a counterpoint to his main story, an inspiring tale of wartime courage, with frequent reminders of the pettiness that war also breeds. It gives the picture a bracing lack of sentimentality.
The content isn't exactly new. It draws on the same historical material as Nevil Shute's novel A Town Like Alice--an account of the ordeal of Allied women in Japanese prison camps in Sumatra. In Paradise Road, a group of English and Aussie women, lost at sea after leaving Singapore, is captured on Sumatra and herded into a hellish camp, along with some Dutch colonials from the island and a small assortment of women of other nationalities--Chinese, Irish, American and even one German-Jewish doctor.
Once this herding is done--it only takes up the first 20 minutes or so of the film--plot is replaced by a series of episodes exploring methodologies of survival. The most curious of these--indeed, the historical tidbit which inspired the film--concern the women's formation of a "vocal orchestra," a chorus which hums and chants complex symphonic works by the likes of Dvorak and Elgar. The two plucky English ladies who organize this group--a married upper-class ex-music student (Glenn Close) and a quiet, bespectacled missionary (Pauline Collins) who can flawlessly recall and transcribe orchestral scores--become the film's primary focus.
Paradise Road is a very good movie that could easily suffer critical dismissal because it isn't quite a great movie. It's not without flaws, but it takes a great, soul-stirring piece of history and doesn't make a mess of it. That alone ought to be cause enough for gratitude, but after Schindler's List, which was beautiful and astounding both as history and as cinema, critical opinion has grown a bit jaded where uplifting, triumph-of-the-spirit historical films are concerned, especially if they approach the material in a conventional way (the recent Ghosts of Mississippi, though not as good as Paradise Road, also suffered unfairly from this attitude).
Well, they can't all be Schindler's List. Part of that film's brilliance was that, at some level, it was every bit as slick and facile as Steven Spielberg's light films, but the director used his slickness--his ability to effortlessly switch tones--to keep the drama alive to us, to keep us from tuning out to the horror and outrage. Spielberg used every trick in his book, and a few new ones, to keep that little circuit breaker in our heads from clicking us into numbness.
Beresford doesn't have that kind of skill. In Paradise Road, the horrors, even though powerfully depicted, aren't well-integrated into a dramatic structure. They're just piled on. We bounce back when a woman has been immolated alive, when another is forced to kneel in a ring of sharpened bamboo, when gold fillings are pulled out of a dead woman's mouth. But we bounce back a little less buoyantly each time.
About four fifths of the way through the film, our grueling desire to see the women liberated gives way to the desire to be liberated ourselves. And yet, compared to the formidable worst of Beresford's work--unpardonables like Her Alibi and Rich in Love--Paradise Road seems almost like a miracle. The early scenes have real urgency and terror. The flight of Close and two other women through a maze of mangroves has a dreamlike tone, as does the first sight of the Japanese army, rolling down a country road led by a vanguard of bicyclists. And though the roles are too many to allow much detailed characterization, Beresford gets the actors--with, maybe, one exception--to behave like real women, and not like deified paragons.
Collins--marvelous woman!--is the best. She does a heavenly job of bringing the saintly missionary down to Earth. Near the end, responding to a question about whether she hates her captors, she has a line that would have ruined most actresses, and she says it so matter-of-factly it brings tears to the eyes. Frances McDormand takes a risky turn in the character role of the sophisticated, blunt-spoken doctor, and it proves a strong and unshowy turn--she keeps her salty aloofness throughout, never allowing us closer to her emotions than a small, guarded smile.
Some of the English and Aussie women begin to blur together in the mind after a while, and Julianna Margulies, as the token Yank (named "Topsy"; a reference to Uncle Tom's Cabin? If so, why?) gets little to do. But Pauline Chan as a courageous Chinese woman, Johanna Ter Steege as a Dutch nun and Elizabeth Spriggs as the ignorant old political wife all make themselves felt.
Conversely, but no less impressively, Beresford depicts the Japanese soldiers as brutal and vicious without caricature. Four of them are brought quite distinctively to life: Sab Shimono as the haunted-eyed colonel, Stan Egi as a smarmy, sadistic young captain, David Chung as the sheepish, apologetic interpreter, and that fine, versatile journeyman Clyde Kusatsu as "the Snake," a splenetic sergeant who roars commands in a voice like an idling chain saw.
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The only troublesome gap in the acting is, sad to say, Close. She's beautiful, to be sure, and poised and all that, but that's sort of the problem. The other cast members are playing pungently real women--tough, kind, scared, touched with internecine bigotries and suspicions--and Close is doing Greer Garson with a butch cut. She's too untextured to get across the theme she's meant to carry: the music--why it's worth risking their lives, how it helps them survive.
Collins, whose character behaves a lot like a saint, doesn't perform like an actress playing a saint. But Close is doing that glow-from-within acting that she does whenever she isn't playing a castrating virago. In general, the virago parts have served this great actress much better.
Much as I hate to puff myself, I can't resist a bit of "was I right, or was I right?" You may remember an essay I wrote last year explaining a cinematic backlash against what I called the Puppysnuff Technique--the old melodramatic trick of killing off a dog to quickly establish the evil of a villain or the piteousness of a situation. I noted that moviemakers had begun pointedly to spare dogs that seemed surely to be headed for the Happy Butt-Sniffing Grounds. Since then I have seen several more demonstrations of the trend--in Daylight and 2 days in the valley, most notably--but none more spectacular than that in Paradise Road. To those who thought I was nuts last year, I have just three words: Watch the poodle.