Friday April 11, 1997
Trivia collectors take note: "Shine" is no longer the only Australian film to use classical music as the key to a sentimental drama about the unbreakable resilience of the human spirit. "Paradise Road" takes the same path, but another "Shine" it's not.
Set during World War II and dealing with the state of war that existed between Japanese captors and their charges in an all-women prisoner of war camp, "Paradise Road" is also at war with itself. A warmhearted horror show that puts cliched movie people into a realistic situation, the signals it sends out are nothing but mixed.
Written and directed by Bruce Beresford, whose better-known works include "Driving Miss Daisy," "Tender Mercies" and "Breaker Morant," this film is intended as a tribute to a group of women who found a unique source of strength that enabled them to survive years of nightmarish imprisonment.
But try as it might, "Paradise Road" can't help being too purposefully uplifting for its own good, filled with non-surprising surprises and emotional epiphanies that are unenviable on the nose. Watching it serves to underscore how skillful "Shine" was in sidestepping some of those same obstacles and cannily simulating emotional reality.
Based on a true story, "Paradise Road" begins in Singapore on a February night in 1942. The colony's British residents are taking their ease at a fancy dress ball at the legendary Raffles Hotel, feeling smug and making derogatory comments about the capabilities of the Japanese armed forces.
An exploding bomb just outside the door changes everyone's tone. Almost immediately comes the announcement that the city will fall in a few days and a hurried plan to evacuate women and children by sea is put into effect. "It's a nice night," one woman says dryly, "for the collapse of an empire."
These opening sections, energized by a sense of urgency, are strong and promising. But once a series of mishaps leads these women, the most visible of whom is tea planter's wife Adrienne Pargiter (Glenn Close), to a Japanese prison camp on the island of Sumatra, the emotional texture gets dicier.
In the 40-odd years since the classic "The Bridge on the River Kwai" was set in a P.O.W. camp for men, standards for allowable on-screen brutality have considerably loosened, and "Paradise Road" takes full advantage of the change.
Under the direction of the vengeful Capt. Tanaka (Stan Egi), eager to act on his belief that "the time for rules has ended," the camp's guards unleash a barrage of savage beatings and graphic brutality on their prisoners, a scenario not likely to do much for Japan's current image abroad.
But if "Paradise Road" is realistic on a physical level, showing these women shoveling out latrines and coping with malaria as well as torture and foul food, its delineation of them as characters is considerably more pro forma. With nothing for these people to do that isn't familiar or expected, the characters tend to lose individual identity and blend together more than they ought to.
Some performers do stand out, though not always for the best reasons. Pauline Collins, the erstwhile star of "Shirley Valentine," smoothly handles the role of Miss Drummond, a saintly, unflappable missionary. Less successful is Frances McDormand, unusually at sea as the German Jewish Dr. Verstak, who calls everyone "darling" in a castoff Marlene Dietrich accent.
Equally visible is Close as Mrs. Pargiter, she of the short-cropped hair and stiff upper lip. Together with Miss Drummond, Pargiter, a music student before she married, comes up with the scheme of forming their fellow inmates into a vocal orchestra, in effect having the women delicately hum their way through some of the great pieces of the classical music repertoire. It's an endeavor that ends up touching even the stony hearts of their captors.
That story can't help but be a bit heartening in its way, but it's also a little too obvious at every turn. The same goes for the film's digs at a prewar society where women were forced to be wives or even nuns when what they really wanted to do was make music or repair trucks. It's not that that point isn't well worth making, it's rather too bad that the film doesn't trust us to discover its truths more on our own.
Paradise Road, 1997. R, for prisoner of war brutality and violence. A Village Roadshow Pictures production, released by Fox Searchlight Pictures. Director Bruce Beresford. Producers Sue Milliken, Greg Coote. Executive producers Andrew Yap, Graham Burke. Screenplay Bruce Beresford. Cinematographer Peter James. Editor Tim Wellburn. Production design Herbert Pinter. Running time: 2 hours, 3 minutes. Glenn Close as Adrienne Pargiter. Pauline Collins as Margaret Drummond. Cate Blanchett as Susan Macarthy. Frances McDormand as Dr. Verstak. Julianna Margulies as Topsy Merritt. Jennifer Ehle as Rosemary Leighton-Jones. Elizabeth Spriggs as Mrs. Roberts.Copyright © 2015, Los Angeles Times