Generally, when I think of Diane Keaton, I think of a “modern woman”. Leave it to 1984’s Mrs. Soffel to ship the performer off to the turn of the century, take away her usual contemporary manners and tics, and in the process show off an important and unique side of her capabilities as an actress, talents that extend far beyond the ability to make people laugh.
Over the course of her fascinating film career, Keaton has garnered Oscar nominations in each of the decades since the 1970s. She also has one win for Woody Allen’s Annie Hall (1977), a role that made her an American icon. She has exemplified the ideal of a woman living in contemporary society: funny, brainy and naturally sexy (she’s even a L’oreal spokes-model now, at age 60!). In each of these roles, her innate likeability comes across easily, and her particular charms seem to be tailored to fit current times. For me, Keaton is reminiscent of Katharine Hepburn, down to the offbeat manner in which she dresses. Her icon status, her technical skill, and her ability to get consistently interesting work for over four decades makes the comparison even clearer.
At the dawn of the ’80s, Keaton scored with one of her best roles, yet oddly it wasn’t in the more celebrated yin of Reds or the yang of the for-then very raw divorce drama Shoot the Moon. It the follow-up to these critical successes, Mrs. Soffel, which showcased her most nuanced performance to date; free of all of the modern conventions that had peppered her other work.
Keaton manages a complete immersion into time and character. The sets, costumes and cinematography all conspire to paint a very grim, foggy portrait of Pittsburgh during 1900. Director Gillian Armstrong gets the technical stuff down without being overly showy, and she conveys a really nice sense of era through her color choices. Using washed out blues, grays and other subdued, fuzzy tones, she filters the film through this particular prism, creating an appropriate backdrop for a film set in a prison. Keaton plays a warden’s wife in this true-life tale, a woman who wants to help two convicted killers (Mel Gibson and Matthew Modine) escape death row by utilizing the guise of teaching them the bible.
She falls under Gibson’s romantic spell and throws away everything she has to join the fleeing criminals. Keaton is breathtaking, moving easily from frail to hot-and-bothered, from naive to furious all within a matter of scenes (a tricky high-wire act for a performer that is so often associated with wacky physical comedies). It is such unexpected turn that the “Diane Keaton” everyone knows so well just vanishes as Mrs. Soffel is finally freed of her repressed existence. In truth, Keaton is again playing a liberated woman, someone ahead of her time in every way. This time, however, she is able to effortlessly separate herself from her far more famous off-screen persona.