No one exploited the historical-epic form better than David Lean. At his peak, he used its spaciousness and breadth to develop characters with conflicting points of view, so that audiences could feel viscerally swept away, emotionally engaged and mentally sharpened -- all at once. With the help of inspired actors, he turned ironic figures into outsize tragic heroes -- such as Alec Guinness's Colonel Nicholson in The Bridge on the River Kwai, a disciplinarian who gets carried away with his own cult of competence when he builds the best possible bridge for the Japanese.
Bruce Beresford is one of the few contemporary directors capable of matching Lean's mix of panoramic visuals, nuanced performances and challenging split perspectives. Black Robe, his film about a 17th-century Jesuit priest's horrific trek through frontier Quebec, was the anti-Dances with Wolves, morally rigorous in its approach to Native Americans as well as to colonists and missionaries. At first glance, Beresford's Paradise Road resembles a women's version of Kwai: Glenn Close braves the brutality of Japanese guards and whips a campful of female POWs into shape. Yet the movie lacks Kwai's irony -- or, rather, the refraction of horror through ruefulness that could more precisely be labeled Kwairony.
Beresford simply piles on torture and immolation and varies it with bits about the universality and healing power of music. This World War II story -- based on fact -- depicts a group of refugees from the fall of Singapore who form a choir under Close's conductorship. It's really a vocal orchestra: The women use their voices as instruments to perform symphonic works. The material might appear to possess built-in torment and catharsis -- sure-fire stuff for the movies -- but catharsis never comes, because Beresford hasn't sufficiently shaped his drama or probed and clarified his issues. What he's done is slap together an atrocity-and-uplift sandwich.
Jumble up the gals-in-jungle-prison setting of Nevil Shute's A Town Like Alice, the cultured-women-in-crisis subplots from '40s and '50s wartime melodramas such as Three Came Home and the rough-and-tumble bonding of male POW adventures, add homespun poetry about noble death and a sprinkling of soaring voices and you have Paradise Road. Beresford must think the music angle will elevate this film over its antecedents; instead, we get cliches in classical drag.
In the first reel, the movie's perfunctory characterization and epic action (the strafing and sinking of a refugee ship, a journey through unknown rain forest) call to mind an Irwin Allen disaster film. In the prison camp, the Australian, English and American prisoners overcome their class biases as well as their prejudices against Dutch nuns and Asians. There's really no revelation in scenes such as a shower-stall brawl over the suspected theft of a bar of soap; you're conscious only that the actresses are committed enough to flail about in the nude. As the film unravels, it takes on the familiar contours of standard German and Japanese prison-camp movies, with the Japanese equivalent of the SS lording it over the slightly-more-human army regulars. All that makes it different is Beresford's unblinking approach to various monstrosities: One inmate is burned alive, another is pinned between spiked rods.
In the best escapist POW sagas -- such as, well, The Great Escape -- most of the characters have defining functions: the scrounger, the tunneler and so on. But in Paradise Road, only two women are crucial to the formation of the vocal orchestra: Close (who's at her brittle worst portraying Anglo-Saxon virtue) and Pauline Collins, who plays a fussy, lovable missionary with a knack for music. The others exist to provide either counterpoint or proof of the orchestra's transcendent grace. Perhaps the most jarring dramatic accompaniment comes from the game, often overrated Frances McDormand. She won an Oscar for plunking one note of cartoon goodness in Fargo, and here, as a German-Jewish loner who sets herself up as the camp doctor, she makes herself even more unpleasant than her role requires. Her skepticism comes off as a form of sadism, and she's lit, framed and made up to look like James Woods's even more evil twin sister.
McDormand just bulls her way through an impossible scene -- the doctor pulling gold from the teeth of dead patients. She explains that she's using the gold mostly for the good of her fellow inmates, but seeing a German Jew perform a deed associated with death-camp Nazis has a multilevel ghastliness that Beresford can't control.
The only dramatic arcs Beresford completes are trite and sudsy -- such as the fair-skinned beauty who pines away after she catches a glimpse of her beloved husband looking sick and defeated or the old woman who overcomes her anti-Asian sentiment to practice for the choir with a Chinese lady. Julianna Margulies puts over a big moment or two, wondering whether she should join the "satin sheet brigade" of prisoners turned pampered prostitutes; Joanna Ter Steege makes for a pretty nun, but when is she going to get a role equal to those she had in the original Dutch The Vanishing and Robert Altman's Vincent & Theo?
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And when is Beresford going to make another great movie? Paradise Road comes at the end of a bad run (Silent Fall, Rich in Love, A Good Man in Africa). He has lost neither his safety net of craftsmanship nor his worthy willingness to take a full-frontal look at anything. But his sensitivity and subtlety have deserted him. Even the miracle of the vocal orchestra is diminished by the hokeyness surrounding it. Beresford doesn't figure out how to build up to the orchestra's emergence; the singers quickly achieve recording-studio quality and end up sounding as fake as the boys' choir in Steven Spielberg's Empire of the Sun. (Beresford employed the arrangements from the actual choir.) And having the most brutal guard turn sappy under the orchestra's aura rings terribly false; it's as if Beresford had pasted homilies in the margins of his shooting script, such as "music soothes the savage breast."
Beresford used an aria from a Dvorak opera movingly in Driving Miss Daisy. Here, when the women perform the largo from Dvorak's From the New World symphony -- the spiritualish section that became the song "Goin' Home" -- they evoke pathos instead of indomitability. In the back of my mind, Paul Robeson began to moan, "I'm agoin' home" -- and I felt like following suit.
Directed by Bruce Beresford. With Glenn Close, Julianna Margulies and Frances McDormand.