It goes without saying, “Meryl Street is good at accents.” That is arguably an understatement, but perhaps the notion of Streep being good is an understatement in itself. From the ice queen at the pseudo-Vogue Runway in The Devil Wears Prada, where the performance, though easily interpreted as over the top, is quite restrained to the poor immigrant on the streets in Ironweed, to even the seemingly ridiculous “a dingo ate my baby” of A Cry in the Dark, all of these accents reveal something interesting about Meryl Streep, The Actress. For, in these accents, she is able to channel another person, another being. She inhabits them to the hilt, embracing their flaws and playing off their strengths to give extraordinary performances.
Not least is her role as Zofia “Sophie” Zawstowski in Sophie’s Choice, a Polish immigrant whose father was killed in a German work camp. The second of her three Academy Award wins, Streep here has a curious job in the film: she must not be too fragile, as it would give away what exactly her “choice” was, nor must she be embittered with unnatural strength, is the balancing act of emotions would then feel unequal.
Yet Streep, accent and all, achieves an outstanding height in this performance, augmented not by the backstory, but by the relationship she has with her lover, Nathan Landau (Kevin Kline). Her voice specifically, though, is tender, lilting, mellifluous. Through the distinct Polish intonations hide vulnerability, which Streep expertly reveals bit by bit and piece by piece, carefully unraveling her character. It’s almost with surgical precision that Streep even seems to elevate such a character which could so easily be written off as “Strong Woman Survivor” by actresses of lesser quality.
Kline, on the other hand, is completely dependent on a less overtly nuanced performance, which is not to say his performance does not have depth or complexity. Kline’s strengths lie in his ability to ostensibly overplay every line and every action, flailing about in violent fashion and yet be taken up with Sophie in incomparable passion. Though his actions are rarely funny in the same way that Kline is hilarious in a film like A Fish Called Wanda it is Kline’s gift for physical comedy. That very physicality often informs such turbulent love affairs, which carries his character in Sophie’s Choice.
Such an impassioned relationship gives Sophie’s Choice a strange melodramatic tilt, which is perhaps the film’s biggest flaw. Though it is certainly concerned with the effects of World War II and the people who survived it, it is so in a way that seems bizarrely flippant, using its Holocaust content less as a contextual backdrop to the characters and their respective situations and more as a fairly jarring (at least retrospectively) exploitative plot device. Yes, it is based on a novel of the same name, and yes, the title inherently suggests that there will be a reveal, but despite the splendid performances from the cast and the texture that they bring to the story, it still manages to feel manipulative. It is fascinating in a way, perhaps aided by director Alan J. Pakula’s self-awareness, but still, at times, the feeling it induces is mildly cringe-worthy.
Though Streep and Kline take the stage, the story is framed around the Next great American Novelist, Stingo (Peter MacNicol), and the events unfold from his perspective. Their “situation”, as it were, is far less scintillating than that of the characters in The Dreamers or Jules and Jim. Though Pakula is perhaps best dealing with social situations augmented by paranoia, such as To Kill a Mockingbird, All the President’s Men, or Klute, melodrama seems odd for him. As aforementioned, there are hints at some self-awareness of how ridiculous the melodrama gets, often in the form of Stingo’s narration declaring it as just that, but Sophie’s Choice walks a fine line in the depiction of this relationship and its plausibility, from the absurd to the tolerable.
Whatever the film’s weaknesses are, it is, albeit unsurprisingly, saved by Streep. She’s a master class of an actress and it becomes harder and harder to look back through her filmography and deny it. If you’re forced with a choice, Sophie’s Choice is worth watching for the pleasure of watching her act.
In addition to a pristine new transfer, included is an insightful commentary track from director Alan J. Pakula, and, most excitingly, a roundtable with Streep, Kline, and others talking about the making of the film and its legacy.