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Alan J. Pakula
Meryl Streep, Kevin Kline, Peter MacNicol, Rita Karin, Stephen D. Newman, Greta Turken, Josh Mostel, Marcell Rosenblatt
Writing Credits:
Alan J. Pakula, William Styron (novel)

Between the innocent, the romantic, the sensual, and the unthinkable. There are still some things we have yet to imagine.

Screen-favorite Meryl Streep received an Academy Award for her portrayal of Sophie Zawistowska in this penetrating drama set in 1947 post-World War II Brooklyn. Kevin Kline plays her all-consuming lover, Nathan. The story revolved around Sophie's struggle as a Polish-Catholic immigrant in the United States who had survived a Nazi concentration camp. The lovers' drama unfolds through the observations of a friend and would-be writer, Stingo (Peter MacNicol). As the trio grows closer, Stingo discovers the hidden truths that they each harbor, resulting in a narrative that is both captivating and moving.

Box Office:
$75 million.
Opening Weekend
$45.033 million on 3471 screens.
Domestic Gross
$102.543 million.

Rated R

Widescreen 1.85:1
English Dolby Surround 2.0
Supplements Subtitles:

Runtime: 150 min.
Price: $9.98
Release Date: 4/21/1998

• Audio Commentary with Director Alan J. Pakula
• “Death Dreams of Mourning” Documentary
• Trailer
• Production Notes
• Cast and Crew Bios


Sony 36" WEGA KV-36FS12 Monitor; Sony DA333ES Processor/Receiver; Panasonic CV-50 DVD Player using component outputs; Michael Green Revolution Cinema 6i Speakers (all five); Sony SA-WM40 Subwoofer.


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Sophie's Choice (1982)

Reviewed by Colin Jacobson (July 19, 2007)

At this point in film history, 1993’s Schindler’s List seems to be regarded as virtually the definitive movie about the Holocaust, and it clearly has been accepted by the public as the best picture on that subject. Let the world have it. While Spielberg's movie has some moments, I think the most stunning film about the Holocaust appeared 11 years prior to it when Sophie's Choice hit the screens in 1982.

Interestingly, both films take rather different approaches to the tragedy. Both attempt to personalize the Holocaust to some degree, but List offered a broader portrayal of the horror and it also displayed much more graphic imagery. Choice, on the other hand, keeps gruesome sights virtually unseen, and it makes no attempt to cover any sort of global story of the Holocaust. This is one woman's story, and what a devastating story it is.

I don't want to spoil too much of the film for anyone who hasn't seen it, but Choice starts off in a deceptively sweet and innocent manner that doesn't set up the viewer for the issues yet to come. Actually, scratch that - precursors of future events are on screen, but the generally calm and happy demeanor of the first half of the movie negates most hints. It leads the viewer to believe the movie will be a wistful and charming remembrance of happy days gone past from our narrator.

That all comes crashing down as the issues of Sophie's (Meryl Streep) past come back to haunt her and we discover what had happened to her. Again, I don't want to get into many details, except that the personal way in which the film explores Sophie's experiences in Nazi Germany really makes the emotions broader and more powerful; this isn't just some nameless, faceless body. And although I know it's coming, the "choice" that gives the film its title always slams me like a brick against my head. I'm not exaggerating when I state that I feel that moment of the film is arguably the most powerful and shattering thing I've ever seen in a movie.

Streep won a justly-deserved Oscar for her portrayal of Sophie. At this point we somewhat take for granted Streep's talents, especially with her "accent of the week", but that shouldn't take away from the deft way in which she handles all of the multitude of emotions she must display in this film, all of which seem absolutely effortless and real.

Also wonderful is Kevin Kline as Sophie's manic boyfriend Nathan. Some critics have knocked Kline for over-emoting in the role, but they missed the point. Due to psychological issues, Nathan should be all over the place and be larger than life, and Kline nails the character. He easily transitions from sublime charm to terrifying menace throughout the film.

Peter MacNicol gets the more thankless role of Stingo, our narrator's younger self. He's the audience's entrance into the film, so he has to maintain a pretty even temperament and doesn't get to act in a showy way like the other two. I must admit I have a hard time watching MacNicol - I can't help think of him in the twin terrors that are Ally McBeal and Baby Geniuses - but he's definitely quite solid here. He makes Stingo a fairly likable character and fulfills the expository nature of his part nicely.

As I prepared this review, I happened to check out the reader comments left on IMDB. Most of them praised the movie, but one offered a differing viewpoint. That person commented on the fact that this Holocaust movie hardly focuses on Jewish suffering and clearly disparages the film for not taking that approach. He/she even suspects a sinister motive behind author William Styron's work that seems to imply some sort of Holocaust denial on his part.

To be frank, I find this viewpoint absurd. While it's undeniable that Jews bore the brunt of the Nazi savagery, does that mean that every film about the Holocaust has to directly concern them or it's somehow untrue or flawed? Does it also mean that every film about the Holocaust has to graphically display images of all the horrors or somehow the movie becomes a "cover-up"?

I think not. Sophie's Choice more effectively conveys the horror of what the Nazis did than 1000 shots of emaciated bodies being dumped into pits ever could. One can easily become numb to all of the images of death and decay that we associate with the Holocaust. We've seen those shots so many times that they've become almost unreal, and they're so grotesque that it's easy to subconsciously block them out and not really take in what they represent.

That never happens during Sophie's Choice. We are forced to put ourselves in the shoes of our protagonist and witness the terror firsthand. When I see the horrific images of emaciated and disfigured bodies, I just want to turn away - it's too terrible to watch and it all seems too unbelievable to take. The same does not happen in Choice. Its atrocities are all too real and are impossible to ignore or to avoid. Would Sophie's story have been more powerful or compelling if the character had been Jewish? Not one iota, and the lack of graphic imagery actually makes the tale more terrifying and upsetting. One can become numb to the persistent sight of tortured bodies, but Choice forces us to confront the core of how the pettiness and inhumanity of what happened could affect all of us. As such, it makes for a most powerful and shattering film experience.

The DVD Grades: Picture D+/ Audio C-/ Bonus B

Sophie’s Choice appears in an aspect ratio of approximately 1.85:1 on this single-sided, double-layered DVD; the image has NOT been enhanced for 16X9 televisions. The transfer suffered from a mix of concerns.

Sharpness presented many of these. At best, the movie seemed acceptably concise. The best looking scenes came from daytime Brooklyn shots and involved close-ups. Otherwise, much of the film appeared rather soft and ill-defined. I noticed a moderate amount of jagged edges and shimmering, and I also witnessed light edge enhancement. The presentation could look rough and without great delineation.

One odd note about the transfer: during the Nazi-era scenes, extensive use of subtitles occurred since the characters all speak in German or Polish. At times, the very bottoms of some letters - like lower-case "y"'s – were cut off at the lower portion of the frame. As one can see during the DVD's documentary, Choice was filmed fullframe and then matted for the correct 1.85:1 ratio. It appeared that they simply masked the bottom of the frame slightly incorrectly, as you can see the fuller image in the fullscreen shots shown in the documentary. This doesn't affect readability during the film – it never confused me - but it looks weird and also presents the possibility of distracting the viewer. This issue popped up inconsistently, as most letters looked fine, but more than a few became cropped.

The print used for the transfer displayed a fair amount of fine grain throughout the movie. Other flaws appear as well. I saw examples of specks, blotches, nicks, scratches and marks. Though these never became truly heavy, they offered more distractions than I’d like.

The subject of color in Choice was an unusual one because of the way it's used. During the Brooklyn shots, hues looked fairly normal, though with a slightly golden tint. I thought the hues were decent, though they could seem a bit faded and bland. Colors almost totally vanished during the flashbacks to Nazi-era scenes. Clearly this was intentional, but I must admit it's somewhat distracting; it's almost black and white but not fully desaturated enough to eliminate all traces of color. No, it didn't hurt the scenes - they remain the most powerful in the film - but I must admit the "nearly black and white" distracted me.

Black levels appeared generally adequate in Choice, though I thought they often could be somewhat bland and overly gray. This was especially problematic during the pseudo-black and white scenes, which came across the worst. Shadow detail seemed passable at best but could seem muddy and dense at times. All in all, the visuals suffered from too many problems to earn anything better than a “D+”.

While I didn't expect - or want - a full-on sonic assault to occur in this kind of movie, I would have liked to find a better track than the Dolby Surround 2.0 audio of Choice. The sound remained almost completely bound to the front center channel; literally all dialogue and effects emanated from that speaker. Only Marvin Hamlisch's score spread to the side and the rear channels, and it did so decently but didn't add much to the presentation.

Again, the lack of audio atmosphere does not really bother me. The track seemed a bit bland and unambitious but it largely worked for the film. More problematic was the quality of the sound. It's not terrible, but it lacked the warmth and depth I'd expect from a movie from 1982. All aspects of the sound seemed strangely compressed and lacked any sort of breadth. It all sounded somewhat stifled. Music came across the best and it sometimes appeared relatively lively, but it still came across with little dynamic range.

Because Choice was such a speech-intensive film, the somewhat weak quality of the dialogue was the biggest detriment. It seemed dull and muffled on many occasions. The same qualities marred the effects, but since these tended to be such a minor aspect of the soundtrack, it's less of an issue. The audio in Choice was never really bad, but it remained a disappointment nonetheless.

Sophie's Choice isn't chock full of extras, but it tosses in a few very good ones. First up is an excellent 52-minute and 38-second documentary called Death Dreams of Mourning. This piece involves all of the important players in the film - including actors Meryl Streep, Kevin Kline, Peter MacNicol, director Alan J. Pakula, novelist William Styron and composer Marvin Hamlisch - through recent (circa 1997) interviews. In addition, we hear from Holocaust survivors and others who are well-acquainted with that subject.

While I enjoyed the aspects of the program that discuss the film itself - especially when Streep talks about her acting - it's the way the discussion of SC is integrated with the details about the actual history of the concentration camps and the experiences of those who went there that makes this piece so interesting. Of particular note is the emphasis placed on discussing the after-effects of Holocaust survivors; since that's a focus in the film itself, the issue makes sense in the documentary as well. The program's excellent and packs quite an emotional punch itself.

One comment about the documentary: if you haven't already seen the film, do not watch "Death Dreams of Mourning" before you view the movie itself. That's always a sensible lesson when it comes to supplements, but it's even more vital here. Actually, don't watch any of the extras before you see the film - they won't ruin the experience (which the documentary will) but they won't enhance it.

Next we hear a running, screen-specific audio commentary from Pakula. The director discusses storytelling and point of view, cast, performances and relationships, the use of narration, financing problems, and a few other production topics.

At his best, Pakula provides a thoughtful, intelligent view of his film. He deals with the creative issues well and offers a nicely insightful take on things. Unfortunately, he goes silent an awful lot of the time, and the commentary lacks breadth. Pakula sticks with the story side of things so intensely that we don’t get a good feel for other subjects and the production as a whole. This remains a valuable commentary but it’s an erratic one.

Finally, the DVD features a not-so-hot theatrical trailer - which makes the film seem overly romantic - and decent biographies for actors Streep, Kline and MacNicol and director Pakula. At least one odd error appears in those listings, however; the filmography for Streep states that she performed in Antz, which was not the case. This DVD hit the shelves about six months prior to that film's release - which means they were written at least a few months before then - so I'd guess that perhaps Streep was going to appear in Antz but it didn't obviously didn't happen. Either that or the folks at Artisan just made a mistake!

The DVD also includes some very good text production notes on the disc itself. These aren't very long but they are unusually provocative and compelling. For example, we learn that Goldie Hawn stumped hard to be cast as Sophie!

Sophie's Choice is one of the best movies ever made. Even though I've seen it a few times, it retains its power to stun and provoke; I may know what's coming, but that doesn't alter the movie's devastating impact. Unfortunately, the DVD disappoints. We get some quality extras, but both picture and sound seem flawed. This is a weak release for an excellent film.

Viewer Film Ratings: 4.8148 Stars Number of Votes: 27
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