For a while, The Prince of Tides is a film with potential. The central character, Tom (Nick Nolte) is called upon by a psychiatrist to recount his family’s troubling past after his twin sister, Savannah (Melinda Dillon), attempts suicide, for a second time. Back home, he and his wife are having marriage issues and their three daughters are slowly growing old enough to see the wedge between their parents. Through psychiatric sessions with Susan (Barbra Streisand, who also directs the film), Tom recalls some painfully repressed memories from deep within.
The most poignant scenes are Tom’s flashbacks to his childhood. These are testimonies of the physical, emotional and verbal abuse he, his siblings and mother suffered from his father. They show the hierarchy of the family, and how it shifts as we see the children grow. While the mother is mostly helpless, Tom’s older brother Luke becomes the only one able to challenge the domineering father and protect the rest of the family. It seems Tom has always been lumped in with the women, being the younger son and suffering one tragic night that the family promised to never speak of again.
All those things could make this film a great depiction of soul searching, recovering from a horrific past and what’s left of the broken family helping each other rise up from the ashes of a terrible childhood. But all that is pushed to the background when a love affair kindled between Tom and Susan becomes the main focus. Not only is this an unethical way to treat a patient, but this stirs up after Tom’s most heartbreaking and shocking revelation. Frankly, I found the whole love story very unsettling.
If Tom had been played by any less talented actor than Nick Nolte, this film would have been intolerable during the more intimate scenes with Streisand. At some moments, my husband and I just groaned and cursed the film every time Streisand’s face was attempting some sort of emotion. The only thing that kept us from clawing out eyes out was the camera graciously cutting back to Nolte, who was convincing and had won over our hearts. His performance brings out a raw feel to deeply repressed pain. Between his vulnerable moments, he uses his southern boy charm and wit as a shield. At his best moments, he can turn that wit on it’s head and pin people against a wall in the most amazing way. They way he can hold that violin hostage was amazing.
The biggest mistake of this film is letting the affair take over. No one wants to see Barbra Streisand in heat. I began to wonder how exactly she was directing herself, was she trying to be sexy, vulnerable, lonely, fragile or just terrible? Having never read the novel by Pat Conroy, I don’t know to what extent the character of Susan is needed, or how prevalent the romance is. Somehow, I feel that the novel focuses on Tom’s family and their issues better than the film does. What a shame.
“TV’s broken you son of a bitch. Now you can watch your kids blow out their candles.”