I have sat through a good number of depressing films: Chinatown, Schindler’s List, The Hours. The list goes on. When I decided I needed to add Sophie’s Choice, part me me didn’t want to subject myself to another dreary afternoon of holocaust stories and unhappy endings. But a bigger part of me, the kind that likes to explore, prod and see every movie ever, had to see it.
Sophie’s Choice is the story of three friends, their time together and Sophie’s past. Stingo (Peter MacNicol) is a young, naive writer who moves to Brooklyn from the south, looking for more experience in life. In his boarding house he meets a couple, Sophie (Meryl Streep) and Nathan (Kevin Kline). Sophie is a beautiful Polish woman who survived time in Nazi concentration camps. Nathan is an eccentric man, whose moods can shift from jubilant to angry-depressive bewilderingly. The three becomes friends and along the way Sophie confides more and more of herself to Stingo.
Compared to the most depressing film experience of my life (watching Schindler’s List alone in my college dorm room on a Saturday night, which I do not recommend), Sophie’s Choice isn’t too bad. Sure, we see that Sophie’s and Nathan’s relationship is only toxic or that Stingo probably won’t find happiness in Brooklyn, but not all their time together is awful. Thing is, they do have some good times, wedged in between the spiraling downturn.
And then there are the holocaust memories. No one wants those. They’re so bleak and depressing but nothing shown is too awful. Until Sophie tells Stingo the one thing she has never told anyone. That, that awful choice, the one I knew was coming, nothing can really prepare you for it. I imagine if you do have children, it’s even harder to watch.
A main problem I see in this film is that Stingo’s story seems a bit lost in the plot. I understand that he’s not the main interest, that goes to Sophie, but he’s our narrator, the anchor in this story and we just seem to watch everything happen around him. There are scenes that pique my interest about Stingo that just happen and are never referenced again. What happened to that girlfriend of his, Leslie? Was his writing getting anywhere? How does he feel about becoming a third wheel to Nathan and Sophie? But I have to remind myself that Stingo is simply our gateway to observing Sophie. And this film was nominated for best adapted screenplay, so what do I know?
Meryl Streep’s portrayal of Sophie is amazing and obviously Oscar deserving. While at first glance Sophie is meek and frail against Nathan’s strong presence, she becomes an amazing woman who has been through so much. She is this beautiful combination of broken, struggling, painfully trying to find reason to live and yet able to enjoy life. The worst has happened to her, she has survived, but perhaps she doesn’t know why. And she can only move on with Nathan, or somebody, finding worth in her. She has many endearing moments and unexpectedly hilarious lines that come out of Sophie’s broken English. That Polish accent sounds authentic and must have taken a long time to master. And that scene when she arrives at Auschwitz, it sealed that Oscar envelope.
The film was nominated for five awards total: cinematography, original score, costume design, adapted screenplay and lead actress. Streep took home the only Oscar for her role. Among the best picture nominees, Sophie’s Choice could have easily been swapped in for one of the films. Probably not E.T. or Gandhi though.
Sophie’s Choice is one of those movies film buffs feel like they should eventually see, but may not. It’s long, not a very fun ride, gets depressing and ends that way. The main reason to see it is for Streep’s acting.
“-You were sent to Auschwitz because you stole a ham? –No, I was sent to Auschwitz because they saw that I was afraid.”